WASHINGTON—Members of Congress are pushing hard on the Environmental Protection Agency to get tougher on regulating water contamination from fluorinated chemicals, including those used in making fluoropolymers.
At a Sept. 6 hearing in Washington, one of the first held by Congress on the issue, a bipartisan collection of lawmakers pressed the EPA on its plans, and a panel of state regulators urged Washington to set national standards and beef up funding for cleanups.
While the chemicals can enter the environment through many sources—including from use in firefighting foams, fabrics and as coating for paper food packaging—lawmakers and witnesses also touched on cases of water contamination involving plastics firms like Saint-Gobain, DuPont and Chemours.
"I think you can tell that Republicans and Democrats are pretty unified here on the concern about PFAS chemicals," said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). "The Flint water crisis is something that every member on this dais has in their head and every American across the country is worried about. PFAS in Michigan is scaring people more than the Flint water did."
One theme of the testimony before the House environment subcommittee was the need to expand federal regulations beyond two of the most prominent fluorinated chemicals, perfluorooactanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS), and develop regulatory standards for others in the class, broadly called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
A community group from North Carolina, Clean Cape Fear, for example, urged lawmakers to set standards for a newer type of PFAS, the fluorochemical compound GenX, used by Chemours as a PFOA replacement at manufacturing plants in the fluoropolymer supply chain in Fayetteville, N.C., and in Europe.
Emily Donovan, a cofounder of the group, said community concern mushroomed since last year when GenX and more than 20 other PFAS chemicals were found in its drinking water pulled from the Cape Fear River. The group blames it at least partly on discharges from the Chemours plant 80 miles upriver.
DuPont and Chemours in early 2017 paid $670 million to settle 3,500 separate lawsuits over PFOA drinking contamination and harm to human health from leakage from a fluoropolymer manufacturing plant in West Virginia.
Donovan said her community was very worried similar contamination could be happening in North Carolina.
"We need you to act swiftly now," she told the lawmakers. "We want a nationwide PFAS human exposure study that includes all known PFAS, not just the well documented PFOA and PFOS. We need to move beyond GenX, PFOA and PFOS... and regulate all PFAS as a class of highly toxic chemicals."
Other witnesses added that they believe state action remains equally important. Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Director Erik Olson said EPA has known about problems with PFAS chemicals for more than a decade but has yet to develop a legally enforceable drinking water standard for any of them.
"We need states to be taking action because EPA is not going to be doing anything very quickly," Olson told lawmakers. "States need to be stepping into the void."
In 2016, EPA lowered its drinking water safety level to 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA combined, down from 200 and 400 ppt separately that it set in 2009. That remains an advisory level.
A few states have set their own standards at much lower levels, often below 20 ppt for PFOA. A June study from the Centers for Disease Control suggested a federal standard up to 10 times lower than the current EPA rules.
States are also setting new, low standards for other PFAS chemicals used in plastics.
New Jersey regulators on Sept. 4 adopted a drinking water standard of 13 parts per trillion for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), a processing aide in manufacturing some high-performance plastics.
A news release from the state's Department of Environmental Quality noted Solvay Polymers had used PFNA at its West Deptford, N.J., facility until 2010, where it makes poly-vinilidene fluoride engineering plastic and its Tecnoflon fluorinated elastomer.
DEP said that under its direction, Solvay put in a treatment system for PFNA groundwater contamination on its property and paid to install a treatment system for the nearby town of Paulsboro.
New Jersey said it started studying PFOA when problems began to emerge from the DuPont plant in West Virginia, and in 2006 became the first state to test for PFOA in its drinking water systems. It set a PFOA level of 14 ppt and is the first state to establish PFNA standards.
Some of the characteristics that have made fluorinated chemicals sought after in manufacturing, such as their resistance to high temperatures and harsh chemicals, also mean they stick around and can become persistent in the environment.
The health effects for people are still being examined, but a committee staff report said studies have found links with kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight and liver tissue damage from PFOA and PFOS exposure.
As well, the New Jersey DEP said PFNA has its strongest links to liver damage and high cholesterol in people. It said the chemical's cancer potential has not been evaluated.
The American Chemistry Council put out a statement after the hearing saying that "the PFAS currently manufactured have been well studied and undergone rigorous regulatory review."
It added that major PFAS manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Japan have phased out PFOA and PFOS manufacturing, in voluntary action with regulators, and that as a result levels of those compounds were declining.
"Our industry supports a process based on the best available science to determine, as appropriate, maximum contaminant levels and contaminated site clean-up levels for PFOS and PFOA," ACC said.
One member of Congress said the emerging regulations around PFAS chemicals are much stricter than for other drinking water contaminants.
"When we discuss other serious drinking water contaminants, we often deal in parts per billion, [for] lead and perchlorate and other dangerous contaminants," said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. "This is parts per trillion. That gives you a sense of how toxic this class of chemicals is."
At the hearing, the director of the EPA's Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water Peter Grevatt testified that EPA will complete a comprehensive national PFAS management plan by the end of the year and plans to finish a toxicity assessment for GenX in the next few weeks.
The EPA held a national summit meeting on PFAS chemicals in May, where then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said PFAS would be a "national priority." EPA is looking at legally-binding standards for PFOA and PFOS and whether it should declare them hazardous substances under federal Superfund cleanup laws.
That last step, according to state regulators from Michigan and Minnesota, could give state governments much more authority to force companies and others to help pay for cleanup.
"If we had this new tool it would be more effective, we might not need to go to court often," said Carol Isaacs, director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, which was formed by Gov. Rick Snyder in November 2017 to coordinate faster contamination response among 10 state agencies.
Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), the vice chairman of the environment subcommittee, raised concerns about how communities would be able to pay for upgrades to remove PFAS chemicals from water systems, particularly if the drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS are lowered from 70 ppt to 10 ppt and more communities are determined to be at risk.
"We, at least in West Virginia, we had a company that was on the hook to pay for this, but there are going to be some communities that the companies will be long gone and how are they going to do this?" he asked, adding that the government only has funding to clean up about 1,000 of the estimated 480,000 brownfield contaminated sites in the U.S. each year.