It’s been a year since the state’s water-quality watchdog recommended that New Jersey set a strict limit on the the allowable level of a cancer-related toxin that’s been found in the drinking water of at least nine locations. But the Department of Environmental Protection has yet to take any action. When asked about it, the state says the recommendation is still under advisement.
A year ago, the Drinking Water Quality Institute sent a recommendation to the DEP to set a maximum contaminant limit for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), part of a class of chemicals that have been linked to some cancers and elevated cholesterol in humans and reproductive and developmental problems in animals, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.
The chemical, whose uses include nonstick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics, has been found in Paulsboro and eight other locations around New Jersey, and is much more prevalent in the state than it is nationally, according to a DEP study released in 2014. The chemical is not regulated nationally.
One source of PFNA contamination, according to state officials and environmentalists, was Solvay Specialty Polymers, which stopped using the chemical in 2010 at its plant in West Deptford near Paulsboro, and has since been working with DEP to test for the chemical in the surrounding area.
The DWQI’s recommendation in July last year was seen as a fresh opportunity to regulate a chemical that environmentalists say represents a threat to public health after several years of inaction from the panel of scientists, water company executives, and state officials.
But a year later, the DEP appears to be no closer to accepting the DWQI’s proposal, and won’t explain the delay or say if or when it might adopt the standard of 0.013 parts per billion that the panel proposed as a safe level in drinking water.
“We’re continuing to move forward with the process of adopting [a] drinking water standard for PFNA,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP. “I don’t have a timeframe for when exactly this will take place.”
Hajna said the DEP is planning to hold sessions this fall at which it will update “stakeholders” on its work to regulate PFNA as well as PFOA and PFOS, two other members of the PFC family of chemicals that are being studied by the DWQI. “The proposed standard and the science behind it need to be communicated properly to all stakeholders.”
Some observers have speculated that the DEP is waiting for DWQI to complete its work on all three PFCs before deciding whether to accept the panel’s recommendations.
Hajna said that water systems with a confirmed presence of PFNA “have taken steps to protect public health.”
That’s not good enough for some environmentalists who accuse the DEP of dragging its feet on setting a health limit for PFNA because of an anti-regulation agenda promoted by the Christie administration.
“It is inexcusable that DEP has not acted on the DWQI recommendation for a safe drinking water standard for PFNA,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that has been outspoken in its calls for the regulation of PFCs.
She argued that the DEP should have promulgated a rule on the basis of the DWQI recommendation, and then put it out for public comment, a process that could have been done in a month.
“The science is in, the research has been exhaustively completed, and people are waiting for the standard … to be made mandatory across the state of New Jersey,” she said. “This is an intolerable delay on the part of DEP that is irresponsibly risking the health of New Jerseyans.”
Carluccio dismissed arguments by the DEP’s Hajna that the chemical is subject to a “groundwater criterion” that allows the agency to require treatment if it is found in ground water.
She welcomed the DEP’s establishment of the groundwater criterion in November last year as an important step towards protecting that water source but said it does not ease concerns about the possible presence of PFNA or other PFCs in drinking water.
“It does not require water suppliers to remove PFNA from their drinking water,” she said.
Hajna said the groundwater criterion was designed to set a very strict limit for the chemical in that source. “The criterion we established is set to be protective for chronic exposure over a lifetime, meaning a really, really, really small number,” he said.
DWQI chairman Dr. Keith Cooper would not say whether the DEP’s delay in acting on the PFNA recommendation was unusual, or whether he was concerned about it, and referred a question about its progress to the DEP.
But Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist, said he hoped that both the DEP and the DWQI can speed up their work on PFCs in future. Cooper frequently emphasizes that the DWQI’s work is strictly scientific, and that it has no involvement in policy decisions.
“As we continue to evaluate compounds of concern, I hope that the processes will be shorter both from the DWQI and the policy side,” he said.
Cooper said the panel is “moving forward” with its work on PFOA, the next PFC that’s on the DWQI’s list.
Bill Wolfe, a former DEP staffer who now monitors the department’s work on water quality, called the PFNA case “just the tip of the iceberg of neglect” by the DEP that he said did not adopt the DWQI’s recommendations for MCLs on a number of other chemicals that were under consideration before a four-year hiatus in the panel’s work starting in 2010.
“The Christie DEP has abdicated the DEP’s regulatory role in protecting public health and the environment — whether via failure to adopt standards or failure to monitor and enforce them,” Wolfe said.