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NJ Slams EPA’s ‘Disappointing’ Plan to Curb Toxic PFAS Chemicals

Department of Environmental Protection attacks long-awaited plan, says it doesn’t address need for immediate measures to stop exposure

Chemicals
Credit: John Morgan/flickr

New Jersey environmental officials said on Thursday they were disappointed by a new federal plan to curb toxic PFAS chemicals that are already being aggressively regulated at the state level.

The Department of Environmental Protection issued a statement attacking the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-awaited “Action Plan” to set health limits on two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, saying it failed to offer relief for contaminated drinking water supplies any time soon.

The EPA said Thursday it intends to set so-called maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) on the chemicals but will follow the regulatory requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act including gathering public comment and using the latest science in proposing specific health levels. EPA officials said they plan to begin the process by the end of this year and rejected claims by many health and environmental advocates that the plan represents a further deferral of action.

“This is not a delay,” said EPA spokesman John Konkus, in a statement. “This process will provide regulatory certainty, while ensuring the legal defensibility of EPA’s regulatory actions. EPA expects to issue the proposed regulatory determination by the end of the year.”

But the DEP said the years-long process of federal regulation won’t address the need for immediate measures to stop people being exposed to the chemicals in water and soil.

Leaving ‘millions of people exposed to harmful chemicals’

“The Trump Administration is leaving millions of Americans exposed to harmful chemicals for too long by choosing a drawn-out process that will delay establishing a federal maximum contaminant level for PFAS,” the DEP said. “While some EPA action on PFAS is encouraging, New Jersey cannot wait for the federal government to address the risks posed by these chemicals.”

Last September, New Jersey became the first state to set an MCL for PFNA, another PFAS chemical, and officials are expected this spring to adopt their own tough limits on PFOA and PFOS.

New Jersey and some other states have been proactive in regulating PFAS because of the absence of enforceable standards at the federal level for a class of chemicals that has been linked to cancer and other illnesses. Some of the nation’s highest PFAS levels have been found in New Jersey’s public and private drinking water sources.

While New Jersey has been a national leader in PFAS regulation, its officials have been accused of slow-walking the latest proposals from the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists that advises the DEP, for tough new health limits on the chemicals.

DWQI member Anthony Matarazzo welcomed the EPA’s plan as a sign that it views PFAS as a public health threat, but said it was moving too slowly.

New Jersey residents ‘at risk’

“Too many NJ residents are currently at risk and for that reason NJ must continue to move forward with our current rulemaking and move on to other emerging contaminants. I expect other states will follow NJ and establish their own standards without the support of the federal government,” said Matarazzo, who is also senior director of Water Quality and Environmental Management at New Jersey American Water, the state’s biggest water utility.

New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel accused the EPA of “kicking the can down the road” with its regulation plan, and urged the DEP to speed up adoption of tight new limits on PFOA and PFOS rather than attacking the EPA.

“We don’t need any more press releases on what DEP is going to do, we need action,” Tittel said. “Instead of criticizing the EPA for failing to protect our drinking water, the DEP should be working to adopt stricter standards for harmful chemicals in New Jersey’s drinking water.”

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the EPA’s slow-moving regulatory plan should speed New Jersey’s process of adopting health limits for the two chemicals that are now under consideration.

“This action plan is really a plan for inaction,” O’Malley said. “It doesn’t set drinking water standards for any of the PFAS chemicals. This is a plan for more monitoring and no action to reduce contamination levels. The EPA’s announcement should finalize DEP’s timeline for finalizing standards.”

Scornful reactions from national, local advocates

The manmade chemicals were once used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, and as a component of firefighting foam at military bases such as New Jersey’s McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Joint Base. They are no longer made in the U.S. but persist in the environment and are present in most humans because they don’t break down, scientists say.

The EPA’s announcement, which it first promised to deliver last year, drew scornful reactions from national and local advocates for tighter curbs on PFAS chemicals. They included the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which said there is ample scientific evidence of the chemicals’ health risks, and no reason to further delay regulation.

“Essentially, EPA announced they are going to study further whether or not they will consider setting federal MCLs, a ‘plan’ that lacks any sense of urgency and offers no timely relief to people exposed to these highly toxic compounds in their water,” DRN said.

If the EPA eventually sets enforceable health limits for PFOA and PFOS, they would replace the current health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion which campaigners say is not strict enough to protect public health.

Environmental Working Group, a national advocate for tighter PFAS limits, said the plan would not stop the introduction of new PFAS chemicals, clean up drinking water supplies, or alert the public to PFAS pollution.

“It’s shameful that the EPA has taken two decades to produce a plan that allows increased exposure to compounds whose makers have used the American people as guinea pigs and, with the EPA’s complicity, covered it up,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.

Amid growing public concern over PFAS, a South Jersey landfill in January canceled an agreement to take 4,500 tons of PFAS-contaminated soil from the former Willow Grove military base in eastern Pennsylvania where the Navy is trying to stop the chemicals getting into ground water.

Jon Hurdle is an environmental writer who lives in Philadelphia. He covers a number of topics for NJ Spotlight, particularly water.

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