Feds launch long-awaited plan to combat PFAS

By: - October 18, 2021 12:48 pm

Wagner Falls, Munising | Susan J. Demas

The President Joe Biden Administration announced Monday newly accelerated efforts to prevent and mediate pollution from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of “forever chemicals” known to cause harm to human health.

PFAS can be found in drinking water, soil and air across the country, and are a growing concern.

As part of the administration’s new plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a “PFAS roadmap” meant to guide the department’s strategy on PFAS over the next three years. Priorities include a new national testing strategy, a proposal to designate certain PFAS as hazardous substances under a federal act and other actions by 2023 to expand and quicken the cleanup of PFAS.

The EPA has also begun to develop a national primary drinking water regulation, as there is not currently a national standard, and has pledged to close loopholes that allow companies to hide PFAS releases from the public.

Michigan adopted the strictest MCLs in the nation last year for seven specific PFAS compounds: PFNA (6 ppt), PFOA (8 ppt), PFHxA (400,000 ppt), PFOS (16 ppt), PFHxS (51 ppt), PFBS (420 ppt) and GenX (370 ppt).

In addition to the EPA’s new PFAS roadmap, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are also taking action to combat PFAS in their own ways.

Coordination of the new PFAS response-related actions across the federal agencies will be aided and guided by the newly-formed White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

Monday’s announcement comes while the administration continues its efforts to pass Biden’s infrastructure deal and “Build Back Better” agenda, both of which dedicate funding for drinking water PFAS contamination.

Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda | Michael Gerstein

In a press release, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) nonprofit applauded the EPA’s action but criticized the DOD, FDA and FAA for not moving fast enough on PFAS.

“No one should have to worry about toxic forever chemicals in their tap water,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “We’re grateful that [EPA] Administrator [Michael] Regan will fulfill President Biden’s pledge to address PFOA and PFOS in our tap water and will begin to turn off the tap of industrial PFAS pollution.

“After more than two decades of delay, it’s good news that EPA is finally starting to act. But we must move even faster to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution by industry. Communities living downwind and downstream of these polluters have waited decades for action,” Faber added.

EWG notes that PFAS has been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations across the country, and more than 200 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

Michigan is home to more known PFAS contamination sites than most states. As of Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) reports that there are 189 sites in the state.

Many of those are military bases, like the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. There, significant amounts of PFAS have leached into the groundwater and soil, prompting concerns from residents and an ongoing cleanup effort by the U.S. Air Force.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.