Multiagency plans to address “forever chemicals” that the White House announced on Monday show the Defense Department and agencies other than the EPA aren’t doing enough to protect the public, a leading environmental group said.
The plans show the Pentagon, Food and Drug Administration, and Federal Aviation Administration are"failing to take meaningful action” to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, said the Environmental Working Group, which has worked on these chemicals longer than any other non-profit.
“The EPA must hold polluters, including the Defense Department, accountable,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force.
EPA’s roadmap details rules it plans to issue to cleanup PFAS and cut the volume released into the environment. The agency also described research it will conduct and data it plans to order chemical manufacturers to provide.
PFAS comprise thousands of chemicals, 650 of which the EPA says are produced in or imported into the U.S.
Numerous states are setting drinking water limits for some PFAS or barring them from consumer goods due to concerns about the propensity of some of them to linger seemingly forever in the environment, build up in people’s bodies, and increase the risk of cancer or other diseases.
Yet many industries say the chemicals are essential to telecommunications, transportation, medicine, and other sectors.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical producers, reserved judgment on government efforts to address PFAS. “We hope and expect any federal actions will be consistent with sound science,” said chemistry council spokesman Tom Flanagin, referring to the EPA’s and multiagency strategy.
The Department of Defense is examining the PFAS concentrations at nearly 700 installations it and the National Guard operated and that may have released the chemicals the White House said.
The Pentagon expects to complete the assessments by the end of 2023, it said. DOD also is spending $220 researching PFAS detection, treatment, and destruction along with substitute chemicals that can be used for the specialized firefighting foams that currently contain the chemicals.
DOD’s research can provide information state and federal agencies need to tackle these chemicals, said Betsy Southerland, a retired former director of science and technology in EPA’s Office of Water.
Brenda Mallory, a former EPA official who directs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is leading an interagency committee addressing PFAS. Mallory understands the problems these chemicals can cause, and will push DOD to share its research results with other agencies needing it, Southerland predicted.
The White House also described FAA efforts to have airports, which also need the specialized jet fuel fighting foams, use formulations without PFAS.
Environmental groups, however, criticized the FAA for inadequate efforts to allow commercial airports to use PFAS-free firefighting foams as required by its 2018 Reauthorization Act (Pub. Law No: 115-254).
“FAA is ignoring the clear intent of Congress,” said EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh. “Airports across the globe are using PFAS-free alternatives, and the FAA should allow American airports to immediately use these safer foams as well,” she said.
The FAA issued an alert early this month recommending foams containing PFAS be used only in emergencies, an agency spokesperson told Bloomberg Law. The agency also built a facility to test alternatives and has carried out more than 400 research tests with 15 commercially available and prototype products, the spokesperson said.
Roadmap a ‘Dud’
`Despite praise from several Democratic lawmakers and others, not all environmental groups thought the EPA’s roadmap did enough.
A coalition of environmental groups led by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families said bolder EPA action is needed, while Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) called the agency’s plan a “dud.”
“It’s going to take even more action from states, Congress, EPA, and other federal agencies to turn off the tap on the pollution that results from using these dangerous toxic chemicals,” said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal advocacy program of Toxic-Free Future, in a statement about the EPA’s roadmap.
The agency promised drinking water regulations for only two of the chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), PEER noted.
The plan also lacked “any mechanism to safely manage generation, transportation and disposal of waste contaminated with PFAS,” PEER said in a statement.
The Environmental Council of the States, or ECOS, however, said: “States are already working hard and this roadmap, combined with collaboration between the federal government and the states, means we can move forward even faster.”
Quickest Path to Restrict
The regulatory portion of the EPA’s roadmap goes as far as laws and existing science allow the agency to proceed for now, said Southerland, who works with the Environmental Protection Network of retired federal employees.
The research and data-gathering efforts the agency described show it is working toward the fastest-possible method it could use to control as many PFAS as possible, she said.
The EPA’s research and chemical regulatory office are focused on getting enough information to compile groups of PFAS into categories based on their physical characteristics, toxicity, or ways they can be treated, Southerland said.
Categories designate one or a few chemicals to be representative of the entire group, she said. That allows information from the representative chemicals to be applied to the rest without necessitating research on each and every chemical, she said.
The approach is the most efficient way to deal with large groups of chemicals, Southerland said. “The bigger the category, the quicker it will be for the EPA to restrict or ban them.”