The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to designate two types of “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances, aiming to expand both cleanup and accountability for this pollution.
“Forever chemicals,” also called PFAS, have been linked to illnesses including kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid disease. They’re also notorious for lingering for decades in the environment and human body instead of breaking down over time.
PFAS contamination has become widespread across the US as it has been discharged over the years by both industrial facilities and military bases, the latter of which used it in firefighting foam. The compounds can be found in a number of household products including nonstick pans, cosmetics and waterproof apparel.
The new proposal from the Biden administration seeks to help impacted communities clean up this waste. If it’s finalized, declaring these substances as “hazardous” under the Superfund law is expected to both speed up the cleanup process and hold polluters responsible.
Melanie Benesh, Vice President for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said that the proposal would “jumpstart the cleanup process at a lot of contaminated sites and help the EPA hold polluters accountable for the mess that they have been making over decades.”
The hazardous substance designation would allow the EPA to put either the military or private company that contaminated a given area with these substances on the hook to clean it up, and, if they refuse to do so, would give the EPA the power to recoup the costs.
“Both private parties and [the] Department of Defense will really be incentivized to move out on cleanup when they’re responsible for this now that this designation is going to take place,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA’s Office of Water.
“The whole idea behind a hazardous substance is that it can pose imminent and substantial endangerment so you really have to move out on it. And if you don’t, if you refuse to, EPA can do it and then sock you with a really big clean up bill,” she added.
The designation would also require the reporting of releases of the substances, which is expected to give communities information on where these chemicals are being discharged.
While there are thousands of types of PFAS — an acronym that refers to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — the EPA’s proposal only addresses the two most notorious types, called PFOA and PFOS.
Recently, the agency said that these two substances are dangerous to drink, even in miniscule amounts.
A chemical industry trade group pushed back on the EPA’s latest proposal, arguing that it would impose significant costs on businesses.
“The lack of uniform cleanup standards creates substantial uncertainty… .affecting federal, state and municipal governments, and other parties such as local fire departments, water utilities, small businesses, airports and farmers,” the American Chemistry Council said in a statement to The Hill.
“A proposed [hazardous substance] designation would impose tremendous costs on these parties without defined cleanup standards, making it impossible for these entities to prepare for the impact of this rule,” the organization said.
The American Chemistry Council also said that the Biden administration’s recent finding that PFOA and PFOS are unsafe at “near-zero” levels further complicates the issue.
It said that taken together, these actions could “lead to an expectation that all contamination be cleaned up to non-detectable levels of the substances.”
The Trump administration previously considered designating these two types of PFAS as hazardous, but did not actually propose a rule to do so.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is also expected to set enforceable drinking water limits for the substances, but has not proposed these limits yet.