EPA ‘Close’ to Decision on Regulating PFAS, but Enforcement Likely Years Away

Jon Hurdle | December 18, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
New Jersey water suppliers face costly cleanup of toxic chemicals in wells, conference on infrastructure hears
Credit: NJTV News
The EPA is mulling regulations on chemicals often found in drinking water.

It’s unclear whether the federal government will meet its own year-end deadline for deciding whether to regulate two toxic PFAS chemicals but even if it moves ahead, it will likely be years before any enforceable health limits are in place.

That’s the word from Walter Mugdan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 — which includes New Jersey — who said the agency is “close” to deciding whether to begin the regulatory process for PFOA and PFOS. But he didn’t know whether it will do so by the end of 2019, as officials promised when they launched a long-awaited Action Plan on the whole PFAS family of chemicals in February this year.

“I don’t know the answer as to whether it’s going to come out by Dec. 31, but we’re close,” Mugdan, the region’s deputy administrator, said in an interview at the annual conference of Jersey Water Works, a collaborative that promotes the renewal of aging water infrastructure, in New Brunswick on Dec. 13.

If the agency makes a “positive determination” it will then move ahead with regulation that would eventually set maximum health limits for the two chemicals, requiring utilities to monitor and clean up water supplies if contamination levels exceed any new limits, he said.

But it “could be a year or two easily” before the agency sets and enforces limits that define what level of those chemicals is safe for human consumption in drinking water, Mugdan said.

“It’s an elaborate procedure and intentionally so because there’s an understanding that a lot rests on this, making sure we get it right,” he said.

EPA slower than states

The EPA has long been accused by environmental groups of delaying or even avoiding a decision on whether to regulate the widespread chemicals despite evidence that they are linked to some cancers, immune-system problems, high cholesterol, developmental issues, and other illnesses.

Mugdan acknowledged that the federal regulatory process is slower than that of states like New Jersey that have already adopted tough standards on some PFAS chemicals, but he argued that it was essential to make the correct judgment in setting any national standard.

“States can act more quickly but many states haven’t, and we want to make sure that what we do is based on the best science,” he said.

Even though PFAS chemicals — formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — have been in widespread use since the 1940s, they were relatively unknown to the public until the last few years, Mugdan said.

Now there is “keen interest” in the chemicals, especially in the New York/New Jersey region, and he said that’s likely to rise further with the recent release of the movie “Dark Waters,” which tells the story of the contamination of ground water around Parkersburg, West Virginia with PFOA from a DuPont plant there.

PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) are man-made chemicals that were used in nonstick cookware and other consumer products. Although they have been phased out by major U.S. manufacturers, they persist in soil and water, and so are known as “forever chemicals.”

Expensive proposition for water suppliers

While EPA deliberates, utilities like Ridgewood Water in Bergen County are faced with millions of dollars in costs for the detection and treatment of PFAS chemicals in their water systems.

Rich Calbi, director of operations for the Ridgewood utility that serves some 62,000 people, identified emerging contaminants like PFAS as among the state’s biggest water-infrastructure challenges, and said that removing the contaminants is expensive for a utility and its ratepayers.

“It’s not easy and it’s not cheap to install these systems,” he told a panel at the New Brunswick conference.

In an interview, Calbi said Ridgewood Water has so far spent about $3.5 million on removing PFOA from five of its wells and is now faced with cleaning up dozens more where the chemical is above a standard proposed — but not yet formally adopted — by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The bigger cleanup is likely to cost some $100 million, and that’s why Ridgewood last February sued DuPont and seven other manufacturers of the chemicals or of products that use them, claiming they are responsible for the contamination.

“Ratepayers will have to pay,” he said. “That’s why we’re taking action against the companies because we don’t feel it’s the ratepayers’ responsibility to pay for something they didn’t put in.”

For now, the utility is considering buying PFAS-free water from another supplier and blending that with its own treated water to cut the contamination level to within the DEP’s proposed new PFOA limit of 14 parts per trillion (ppt), Calbi said.

If the PFOA contamination in any well approaches the EPA’s 70 ppt health advisory level, it will be shut down, he said. But he’s more concerned that the levels will exceed New Jersey’s much stricter standard, whenever that is finalized.

“It’s water currently that meets all safe drinking water standards. But it’s water that may exceed a future standard,” Calbi said.

New Jersey American Water, the state’s biggest water utility, with about 10 times as many customers as Ridgewood, complies with a state standard on PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) — another type of PFAS chemical — that has been formally adopted by the DEP, said Don Shields, the company’s vice president and director of engineering. If a well is found with levels of PFOA or PFOS that exceed the proposed health levels, it will be shut down or treated, he said in an interview.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Shields said, referring to the costs of cleanup. “There are some stations where it will be a low-cost improvement; it could be $1-2 million per station, but if you have surface water contamination, you may be looking at a much bigger bill.”