Advance Notice: Briefs

EPA issues weaker cleanup rules for toxic PFAS chemicals

By: - April 26, 2019 3:16 pm

Underground monitoring wells for PFAS near former Wurtsmith Air Force base | Michael Gerstein

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued weaker draft standards for toxic cleanup at hazardous waste sites following pressure from the Department of Defense, the New York Times reported Thursday.

The federal agency released a set of proposed standards Thursday that would do away with a section on how to respond to “immediate threats posed by hazardous waste sites” contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, abbreviated as “PFAS.”

Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda | Michael Gerstein

The chemicals have been linked to cancer, along with other health problems. Two of the most common of thousands of PFAS chemicals are PFOS and PFOA, which are contained in fire fighting foam once widely used at military bases, including the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda.

That contamination has spread from the base in a large plume near the northern Michigan township, where U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Assistant Air Force Secretary John Henderson met with concerned residents Wednesday and relayed news that it could take another four years before the Air Force has a firm plan to begin cleaning up the pollution.

The EPA currently has a drinking water advisory contaminant limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA. One ppt is equivalent to a single drop in 20 Olympic size swimming pools.

The agency suggested a level of 400 ppt for immediate “removal actions,” such as soil excavation, according to a copy of the original proposal published by the Times. That number has been removed from later draft rules and retains the 70 ppt drinking water threshold.

In a tweet on Friday, Peters said the new proposed EPA guidance “falls short” and “won’t protect public health and safe drinking water.”

Peters, who serves on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters in Oscoda Wednesday that he doesn’t “think four more years [until the situation is remedied] is acceptable to anyone.” But he added that “there’s also a recognition that you have to do the job right.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson | Michael Gerstein

When asked by the Advance whether the Air Force is acting quickly enough in Oscoda, Peters said: “The Air Force is working on this diligently. I’d like them to work quicker, but the fact that the assistant secretary is here he certainly made a commitment that he’s going to move as quickly as the science and engineering allows him to do that. I take him at his word, but we’re going to stay on it in the months and years ahead.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) criticized the Department of Defense’s efforts in a statement Friday, citing the Times article.

“Today’s proposal by the EPA is completely unacceptable and does not do enough to protect public health,” Stabenow said. “People in Michigan and across the country are living with great uncertainty about the impacts of exposure to PFAS chemicals, and I urge Michigan families to join me in opposing against these weak standards.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.