Is NJ doing enough to regulate harmful PFAS in drinking water?

The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute was asked by the state Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate a family of chemicals known as PFAS — starting with PFNA — when it was brought into the spotlight nearly 10 years ago after it was detected in drinking water and fish in Gloucester County.

New Jersey became the first state to set a maximum contamination level for PFNA last year at 13 parts per trillion.

“We have some of the highest levels of PFAS in our drinking water. We need to have the strongest standards in the country,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

The family of toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been linked to certain types of cancers. PFAS include PFNA, PFOS and PFOA. New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute Chair Keith Cooper says these compounds were used from the 1950s up until several years ago in the manufacturing process of Teflon. They were one of the main components of firefighting foams. They were used to treat carpets and to make clothing water resistant. The compounds were also in the packaging of popcorn and pizza boxes.

Cooper said companies discharged their waste products into sewage treatment plants without any regulations because these chemicals weren’t on anyone’s radar. That’s how PFAS got into the ground water and ultimately into drinking water.

“These compounds were basically developed assuming they were nontoxic,” said Cooper.

When PFAS got into the national spotlight and external research exposed the dangerous side effects, Cooper explains it put pressure on companies to take action.

“So they voluntarily said, ‘We will no longer manufacture these things in the United States,'” he said.

But companies overseas are still using PFAS, and Cooper says there’s no regulation on bringing them into the United States.

Last week, the EPA’s acting administrator announced an action plan to regulate the whole family of PFAS for the country. But New Jersey’s DEP says the EPA “… is leaving millions of Americans exposed to harmful chemicals for too long by choosing a drawn-out process.”

The EPA fought back saying, “This is not a delay. 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.”

O’Malley points out the Garden State has also not adopted limits on the two remaining compounds of concern. He says the research has been finished for years and there’s no reason to wait.

“The Trump administration deserves to be blasted for their actions, but New Jersey’s DEP needs to look in the mirror and move forward with the recommendations that are in front of them right now,” O’Malley said.

Cooper said the reason regulations haven’t been put in place faster in New Jersey is because all these steps have to be done according to the law before action can be taken. He says we need to streamline the process.

“You have to give the drinking water companies a lot of credit because they’ve worked very closely with the DEP on developing pilot plans,” Cooper said.

The DEP says they’ll be filing the proposal on the remaining compounds in the spring.