By Dennis Pillion
In rural Lawrence and Morgan Counties, downriver from Decatur in north Alabama, many homeowners have been afraid to drink their tap water since 2016 due to high concentrations of certain man-made chemicals found in the water supply.
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was “moving forward” with plans to set a nationwide limit on those chemicals in drinking water as part of what the agency described as an unprecedented action plan to address contamination issues nationwide.
Critics of the plan say the agency is moving too slowly to regulate chemicals known to be associated with numerous health problems in humans and that the agency has not made a binding commitment to set firm drinking water limits of the chemicals, though EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he had “every intention” of doing so.
The chemicals — called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances or PFAS — were manufactured for decades at the 3M facility in Decatur, on the banks of the Tennessee River. One Alabama water utility has already spent millions on new filters to treat its water after the EPA issued a health advisory in 2016, warning that lifetime exposure to low levels of the chemicals had been associated with health problems, including kidney and testicular cancers, liver damage, developmental issues in fetuses or breast-fed infants, immune system impacts and cholesterol changes.
Wheeler announced the agency’s PFAS Plan at a press conference Thursday morning in Philadelphia.
“The PFAS Action Plan is the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA,” Wheeler said. “For the first time in Agency history, we utilized all of our program offices to construct an all-encompassing plan to help states and local communities address PFAS and protect our nation’s drinking water. We are moving forward with several important actions, including the maximum contaminant level (MCL) process, that will help affected communities better monitor, detect, and address PFAS.”
Wheeler said that by the end of 2019, the agency would propose setting a MCL for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common PFAS chemicals, under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In addition to moving toward a formal limit for the chemicals in drinking water, Wheeler also said the EPA has begun the process of listing the chemicals as hazardous under the Superfund law, which could make it easier to force responsible industries to clean up old PFAS contamination.
The compounds were used for decades in consumer products like Teflon and Scotchgard to create grease-resistant or non-stick coatings. They have also been used extensively to create stain-resistant products like carpets or other fabrics, waterproof clothing, food packaging and fire-fighting foams used widely at military facilities and air fields.
PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals,” because they are extremely slow to break down in the natural environment and can build up in the tissue of people and animals. Studies have shown that nearly every person tested has some level of PFAS in their blood.
The 2016 EPA health advisory warned that negative health impacts were associated with exposure to the chemicals in drinking water at concentrations of 70 parts per trillion, setting the advisory level there. However, emerging research has begun to show concerns about exposures to far lower doses of the chemicals.
In June 2018, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, issued a draft toxicological profile for PFAS, recommending minimal risk levels that equate to about 7 parts per trillion for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA. At least four states — Vermont, New Jersey, Minnesota and California — have set state limits for PFAS chemicals in drinking water that are more strict than the EPA health advisory standards.
When the 2016 health advisory was issued, eight Alabama water systems had PFAS concentrations higher than the 70 ppt threshold. Most of those were able to change their water source or mix in alternate water sources to bring their PFAS concentrations below 70 ppt.
However, the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (WMEL), which draws its water from the Tennessee River downstream of Decatur, was forced to install a temporary granular activated carbon filtration system to meet the health advisory level and advised customers not to drink their tap water until the filter was installed. The temporary filter cost about $4 million, and now WMEL is seeking to install a permanent, reverse-osmosis filter that could cost $30-50 million. WMEL has filed a lawsuit against 3M in efforts to recover the costs of the new filtration systems.
WMEL has asked the state to join the lawsuit against 3M, highlighting the $850 million settlement between 3M and the state of Minnesota regarding PFAS pollution in that state. Alabama AG Steve Marshall said he would discuss the matter with WMEL, but has not committed to joining the suit.
Reaction to EPA plan
While Wheeler said in the press conference that the agency had “every intention” of setting a nationwide limit for PFAS this year, some critics responded that there was no binding commitment for the agency to adopt a national standard and that the agency was not acting quickly enough to deal with a significant public health threat.
Alabama-based environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper, which is suing 3M in an attempt to force the chemical giant to enhance cleanup and removal of PFAS from the Tennessee River, issued a statement Thursday morning saying the EPA was “dragging its feet,” on protecting the drinking water of north Alabama residents.
“Americans have a right to stringent drinking water standards for PFAS as soon as possible,” said David Whiteside, Tennessee Riverkeeper’s founder and executive director. “Unfortunately, it seems that Andrew Wheeler and the leadership at EPA act to benefit polluters at the expense of nearly 33 percent of the U.S. population.
“No voter wants such alarming pollutants in their water supply, no matter how they vote.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a news release the EPA plan unveiled today was “insufficiently protective,” and noted that it had been nearly a year since then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pledged his agency would decide on whether or not to set drinking water standards for PFAS.
“It has taken the EPA nearly a year just to kick the can even further down the road. While EPA acts with the utmost urgency to repeal regulations, the agency ambles with complacency when it comes to taking real steps to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe,” Carper said. “I urge Mr. Wheeler to reverse course and treat this public health threat with the urgency it deserves.”
Meanwhile, the National Groundwater Association, an organization representing groundwater professionals, said they support the EPA plan as presented.
“PFAS contamination is a national crisis that requires national leadership, and EPA’s announcement is an important step in providing that leadership,” said Lauren Schapker, government affairs director at NGWA. “As EPA begins implementation of the PFAS management plan, NGWA will continue to work with the Agency to address the unique challenges facing rural areas and private well owners, and to ensure the technical and financial resources are made available to address the crisis.”