The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has stalled a range of efforts to address PFAS in drinking water, prompting concerns about what could happen if there’s a long-term delay.
The chemicals—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS—have spread through drinking water, air, soil, and groundwater in many states. But the pandemic has delayed a federal study on the health effects of the chemicals, as well as PFAS testing and remediation efforts in Michigan and Ohio, where governors have issued stay-at-home orders and urged social distancing.
Delays of a few weeks or a month won’t throw many projects far off course, said Jeffrey Dintzer, an environmental attorney at Alston & Bird LLP in Los Angeles who specializes in toxic tort and land use litigation. But if the pandemic extends into the fall, “we’re not going to get a lot done in 2020" in terms of understanding how the chemicals affect humans, he said.
PFAS may cause adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the EPA.
Multiple months of delays are likely to affect federal efforts to curb PFAS pollution, such as an enforceable limit for the chemicals in drinking water, according to Sarah Peterman Bell, a partner at Farella Braun + Martel LLP in San Francisco whose practice includes environmental and natural resources litigation.
“My expectation is that the pandemic is going to delay that action,” she said. As for data collection efforts, like sampling and health studies, “it’s too early, I think, for states or even the federal government to weigh in on when these programs will resume.”
No Field Work
The RACER Trust, which is responsible for cleaning up former General Motors properties in multiple states from Louisiana to New York, has put part of a project in Buick City, Mich. on hold. The trust is rerouting and replacing a stormwater drainage pipe that became a potential channel for PFAS-contaminated groundwater from several properties to enter the Flint River.
But it can’t install a new, sealed pipe because of state restrictions on nonessential work during the pandemic, trust spokesman Bill Callen said.
“No investigation work or sampling that requires field work is being performed,” he said.
Callen said the new pipe will take about three months to install once they’re allowed to resume work. Meanwhile, the trust is continuing to do work remotely, such as preparing cleanup plans or reviewing data.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in an April 10 memo that its regional offices will consider the impacts of the coronavirus when determining whether cleanup at any site should continue.
PFAS is still a priority for many senators, said Marta Hernandez, communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. The next National Defense Authorization Act, which had been a successful vehicle for PFAS legislation for fiscal 2020, is still being drafted.
“It’s too early to comment on what will or won’t be included in the bill,” she said.
PFAS funding will also be a priority in the fiscal 2021 House appropriation bill for the EPA and other agencies, according to Hill staff.
Testing Efforts Grounded
Before the EPA released its memo, Michigan suspended its offer to test some residents’ drinking water wells for PFAS due to the pandemic, according to an April 2 news release from the state’s PFAS Action Response Team.
Instead, homeowners will receive home testing kits that the state will process for free. The state will provide bottled water and filtered water pitchers until homes with potential PFAS contamination can be tested.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been seeking volunteers in U.S. communities most affected by PFAS contamination—such as Parchment, Mich.; Montgomery County and Bucks County, Pa.; and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.—to get a clearer picture of how the chemicals affect the human body. It opened an office at the pilot location for the study, near the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H.
But the agency is following social distancing recommendations and is no longer taking appointments with residents. The study has been put on hold.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency suspended PFAS sampling on March 16 because it couldn’t access buildings to take samples, agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said. The agency had sampled 229 out of 245 schools and child care facilities served by public wells.
Until sampling resumes, she said, the Ohio EPA will continue reviewing incoming sampling results. The agency is unsure when it will be able to continue testing the remaining water systems.
“We intend to remobilize as soon as it is safe to do so,” Griesmer said.
Proceeding as Planned
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed other PFAS remediation efforts, including “essential” water utilities’ work.
Water district officials in Merrimack, N.H., have been working to install a treatment system for PFAS-contaminated drinking water “as quickly as they could,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said.
That work is continuing as scheduled and should be completed by late summer, according to Jill Lavoie, business manager for the Merrimack Village District.
“Besides having some office staff working from home, the pandemic hasn’t posed a problem with the day to day operations of the MVD or construction of the treatment plant,” she said.
As an essential business, she said, “we are practicing social distancing, which isn’t difficult since most employees have their own vehicle.”
Water utilities generally haven’t experienced delays with installing treatment systems, said John A. Sheehan, of counsel at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington, whose specialties include environmental toxic torts. Much of the utilities’ focus has shifted to the safety of their workforce during the pandemic, he said.
—With assistance from Dean Scott.