Feds announce effort to help states, communities combat PFAS

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 5, 2019

LANSING — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in February that it will respond to “extensive public interest” in the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, with a multifaceted action plan.

According to EPA acting Director Andrew Wheeler, short-term and long-term solutions are included in the PFAS Action Plan to clean and prevent the chemicals from tainting drinking water and groundwater.

PFAS has been described as chemicals that have been used for the past century in the manufacturing of different products, particularly fire suppressants. Health risks have been associated with exposure to the chemicals, including problems with fertility, increased risk of thyroid disease, high cholesterol and blood pressure, lowered immune response and an increased risk of cancer, particularly of the kidney and the testicles.

A notable part of the EPA effort will be the establishment of a maximum contaminant level, or MCL, for the man-made chemical in drinking water, which will be added to the national Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The PFAS Action Plan is the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by the EPA,” Wheeler said during a press conference that was streamed online.

The plan also includes regulations for cleanup, enforcement, monitoring — including research for new analytical technology — risk communication and education programming.

The move was a long time coming for those in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, according to Communications Director Scott Dean.

“The state of Michigan has consistently encouraged the federal government to prioritize PFAS response,” Dean said in an email. “We have also stressed the importance of national research and standards to guide states like Michigan that are aggressively working to protect our citizens.”

Dean said that the MDEQ, while supportive of the PFAS Action Plan, is a bit concerned with the timeline to get all of the standards and regulations in place — in that, as of now, there isn’t one.

That’s important, because while Michigan has its own steps to address PFAS contamination through the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, or MPART, the federal MCL will likely be the standard that the state adopts, since the state Legislature passed a bill last December that makes it more difficult to enact steeper regulations than are allowed at the federal level. The “No Stricter Than Federal” law was signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder just before the end of his term.

“Through (MPART), we have taken proactive steps to address PFAS contamination in our state. Our commitment to protecting Michigan’s citizens from PFAS remains strong,” continued Dean. “The progress Michigan has made in identifying PFAS sites and protecting the public from PFAS exposures was completed without the plans the EPA announced (Feb. 14).”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters released a statement last week sharing his concern over the vagueness of the EPA plan.

“I’ve consistently heard from Michiganders about the need for the EPA to establish an enforceable standard and share their concerns that the EPA’s new plan only kicks the can down the road,” he said in a press release. “Exposure to PFAS can have serious health impacts, which is why we cannot afford to wait any longer for action. I will continue working in the senate to protect Michiganders and communities from PFAS exposure.”

Echoing that call to speedier action is Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

“For residents in the Huron River watershed in southeast Michigan who are struggling with ‘do not eat fish’ advisories and worried about what the appropriate level of PFAS in drinking water is, the EPA’s action plan for PFAS fails to provide any immediate help. We can’t wait months and years for action. We need policies and standards for clean drinking water now,” Rubin said in a press release.

Dean said the MDEQ will continue to work on the issue while the federal government begins implementing the plans announced, and the MDEQ will be available to assist the EPA with data or other efforts that would “expedite the federal process of decision making.”

Michigan’s U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell joined those applauding the move.

“I am glad the EPA unveiled its long-awaited action plan on PFAS today,” he said in a prepared statement. “This plan begins the process of establishing maximum contaminant levels and designating prevalent PFAS as hazardous materials. … Clearly there is more work to be done, but as federal lawmakers, we must support the EPA in this process as it works to reduce the risk of PFAS in our communities.”

But the EPA’s announcement doesn’t hint at what might be the MCL for PFAS once implemented.

The National Ground Water Association doesn’t have a recommendation either, citing suggested numbers from scientists of five parts per trillion through 70 ppt and higher. The organization set out to compile a report on the topic, which was published in 2017.

“The NGWA felt this particular group of compounds were so unique, persistent and pervasive we spent 12 months with 36 volunteers — 14 of whom have (doctoral degrees) — to research, then develop this document,” Seth Kellogg, a board member of the NGWA’s scientists and engineers section and a senior geologist at Geosyntec Consultants, said in a prepared statement. “As the association dedicated to the responsible development of groundwater, we felt it necessary to explore this emerging contaminant so our members and the public have the tools necessary to protect the resource of groundwater and to minimize health threats.”

Aaron Martin, a spokesperson for the NGWA, said Michigan has been one of just a few regions, largely in the eastern and northeastern U.S., that has taken its own initiatives to investigate PFAS.

For more information on the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan, visit epa.gov/pfas.