February 13, 2019 | 07:10 PM
EPA to unveil long-awaited ‘Action Plan’ on curbing toxic PFAS chemicals
Campaigners concerned the agency won’t immediately set enforceable health standards
StateImpact Pennsylvania: Jon Hurdle
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will announce on Thursday a long-awaited plan for how to manage the toxic PFAS class of chemicals, which has contaminated drinking water and soil in many parts of the United States including the Horsham and Warrington area of eastern Pennsylvania.
The agency said its “Action Plan” will include monitoring and cleaning up the chemicals, which are linked to cancer and other health conditions including high cholesterol, low birth weights, and immune system problems.
But it is unclear whether the agency will also propose enforceable Maximum Contaminant Limits (MCLs) for drinking water, which advocates say are essential for protecting human health against the chemicals. Implementation of any new standards could take years.
“EPA’s Action Plan will move forward with the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS—two of the most well-known and prevalent PFAS chemicals,” the agency said Wednesday.
According to a Congressional aide who was briefed late Wednesday, it will be a five-part plan that includes more monitoring, more research, and listing the chemicals as hazardous substances that would enable communities to go after polluters.
Any move to propose MCLs would come as a surprise after a recent report from Politico that the EPA had decided not to set national standards for the chemicals despite calls from campaigners and state officials for it to establish levels that would protect public health.
Enforceable national standards would replace the EPA’s current health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined, a level that campaigners say is not stringent enough to protect public health.
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican who co-founded of a group of House lawmakers calling for stricter PFAS standards, said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the EPA announcement would curb the chemicals but said he had no more information than was contained in the EPA’s advisory.
“That sounds good but we want to know the details,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is a very serious matter for a lot of people in our community in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.”
David Andrews, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a national advocate for PFAS curbs, said he expects EPA to nudge the regulatory process forward but not to propose specific MCLs.
“The next step would be a regulatory determination that they would pursue MCLs so if they follow that process it would be an incremental step,” Andrews said.
Blood tests on 235 Horsham, Warrington and Warminster residents by the Pennsylvania Department of Health last year found a large majority had levels of four PFAS chemicals that exceeded the national average, and that some of them had illnesses including elevated cholesterol, endocrine disruptions and cancer.
Pennsylvania officials have been working to curb PFAS levels at 20 sites where contamination of soil or groundwater or both has been found. Concern has focused on the Horsham area because of high contamination in drinking water there, stemming from the chemicals’ long-term use in firefighting foam at nearby military bases.
While local authorities such as Horsham Township have now installed filters to cut PFAS levels in water systems to within health limits, high levels of contamination persist in soil on the bases and in ground water beneath them.