Federal regulators are crafting an exemption for polluters releasing harmful perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) into the environment in a way that environmental advocates say circumvents a new law meant to address widespread contamination.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule Monday adding 172 PFAS chemicals to a list of those that are required to report when they release them into the air or water, or on land.
Dubbed ‘forever chemicals,’ PFAS have been found in drinking water around the country. They are used in weatherproof fabrics, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam, and they are linked with cancer, low infant birth weights, immune issues and thyroid disruptions.
Under pressure from health experts and states, Congress late last year directed the EPA to require better reporting on some of the thousands of PFAS chemicals.
Specifically, lawmakers said manufacturers should be required to report to the government if they release 100 pounds or more of the chemicals annually into a waterway. But EPA’s new regulation would allow them to bypass that requirement, as long as no single PFAS chemical in a mixture released exceeded 1 percent of the total.
EPA is also skipping the usual step of allowing the public to comment before finalizing the rule, arguing that because the rule is needed to comply with an act of Congress, EPA “has no discretion as to the outcome”.
Eve Gartner, managing attorney for toxic exposure at Earthjustice, said that “it’s pretty clear that Congress set a 100 pound threshold because they’re concerned about very small amounts of these chemicals being released without people knowing about it”.
“We know that PFAS at 1 teaspoon in an Olympic size swimming pool can have health effects,” she added.
An EPA spokesperson said “addressing PFAS is a top priority”,
Earthjustice joined a coalition of groups including the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, Clean Water Action, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council in opposing the rule.
The National PFAS Contamination Coalition consists of grassroots groups that have discovered the chemicals in their water, including Clean Cape Fear, a North Carolina-based group arguing for PFAS regulation after years of contamination from a Dupont manufacturing plant now owned by Chemours.
“The burden is on the state and the burden is on the communities to know what is happening in our area and to be able to track it so we can self advocate,” said Emily Donovan, cofounder of the local organization.
Donovan said EPA should have listed the PFAS chemicals as Congress intended so communities could better track how companies are using and releasing PFAS.
The reporting requirement is just a small first step in what health experts say governments will have to do to protect people from the chemicals.
“Because these are forever chemicals … we’re living with what grandma’s generation used and we just keep adding to it,” Donovan said. “We have been overexposed for so many decades that we can’t afford another drop.”
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