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New York ‘Forever Chemical’ Rules Delayed by Coronavirus Efforts

June 2, 2020, 9:36 PM

New York’s plans to set maximum contaminant levels for “forever chemicals” in drinking water were again delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council was expected to set the levels and finalize rules requiring water system monitoring for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, as well as 1,4-dioxane, at its June 4 meeting.

It was canceled because the department is focused on fighting Covid-19 and because of budget uncertainty that could affect funding for water treatment, Deputy Commissioner of Public Health Brad Hutton told Bloomberg Law on Tuesday. “We’re still around the clock, 24-7 responding to the pandemic.”

The next meeting is set for July 30, but Hutton said they may call an emergency meeting before then. The department also could choose to adopt the changes in advance and seek approval from the council later, he said.

Environmental advocates are urging the state to put the standards in place soon.

Most Stringent Levels

The state had been on track to set the most stringent levels in the nation at 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and 10 parts per trillion for PFOS, chemicals in the PFAS family. It also would set levels at 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane.

The PFAS chemicals, once used in Teflon and Scotchgard, are linked to certain cancers, hormone disruptions, and other medical conditions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They don’t break down easily and instead remain in the environment for a long time, earning them the name “forever chemicals.”

The solvent 1,4-dioxane, used in household cleaning, cosmetics, and personal care products, is a likely carcinogen to humans, according to the EPA. Once washed down the drain, the solvent can seep into the local groundwater and resist natural degradation.

In lieu of federal action, nearly half of all the states are working to write their own guidance, regulations, or legislation to address drinking water contamination from PFAS chemicals. And states like California and New York are also looking to set limits on 1,4 dioxane.

Delays Caused by Pandemic

New York’s levels for the three chemicals were recommended by the state’s Drinking Water Quality Council in December 2018, but are still making their way through the lengthy public comment period along with the rules for water system monitoring.

The public comment period on the revised rules ended March 9, just as the coronavirus outbreak began to mushroom in the state. Meetings in March and April were postponed and canceled as department officials instead focused on setting up virus testing sites, starting antibody testing, and building up contact tracing efforts.

New York is the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., with 373,040 positive cases and 24,023 virus-related fatalities as of June 1, according to the most recent state data.

The rules must be approved by the state health commissioner and the Public Health and Planning Council.

Budget Shortfall

Hutton said the department still must finalize its review of the public comments and is waiting to see the effect Covid-19 has had on state and local finances, as water treatment could be costly.

The state is facing a $13.3 billion shortfall as a result of the virus and subsequent economic standstill, as well as a delayed tax filing deadline. The department is looking to ensure funding will still be available to offset the cost of water treatment and minimize the impact on rate payers, Hutton said.

The rules, however, will expire if the council and department don’t take action by Aug. 7, Hutton said.

It remains an “incredibly high priority of the department” to establish the maximum contaminant levels, he said. “We just need a little time to better understand the financial impact, complete our review of rulemaking, and move forward in the next one to two months.”

Environmental Advocates of New York in a statement on Tuesday said they were disappointed that the state again delayed finalizing the standards.

“Given the known risks that PFOA and PFOS pose to the immune system, we urge the Department of Health to move forward without delay to require testing and cleanup of these toxic chemicals in drinking water,” Maureen Cunningham, the group’s senior director for clean water, said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Keshia Clukey in Albany, N.Y. at kclukey@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergindustry.com

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