The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday an approach to address pollution nationwide from the types of toxic “forever chemicals” that have been plaguing southeastern North Carolina for decades, a plan that includes listing certain of these substances as hazardous under the Superfund Act.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the three-year “PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024” Monday to a handful gathered at North Carolina State University’s Lake Raleigh Fishing Pier in Raleigh. Gov. Roy Cooper, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser and Congresswoman Deborah Ross, D-North Carolina, joined Regan for the announcement. The event was streamed live on YouTube, but technical issues frequently interrupted the program for viewers.
The strategic roadmap, the result of work by the EPA Council on PFAS that Regan put in place in April, focuses on three strategies: increase investments in research, leverage authorities to act now to restrict PFAS chemicals from being released into the environment, and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination, EPA officials said.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, including GenX, are a group of man-made chemicals used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. Research suggests that PFAS breaks down slowly and can accumulate in people, animals and the environment, which can lead to adverse health outcomes, according to the EPA.
Regan has long been entrenched in managing PFAS. He was serving as the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality secretary when news broke June 7, 2017, that the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility had for years released PFAS into the Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for the Wilmington area. President Joe Biden selected Regan earlier this year to serve as the EPA administrator.
Regan said that moving to designate certain PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund program would allow the agency to clean up contaminated sites and hold the responsible parties accountable by either having them perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work.
“The Superfund program has successfully protected American communities by requiring polluters to pay to clean up the hazardous waste and pollution that they themselves have released in our environment,” he explained. “This strategy will leverage EPA existing authority to take bold action to restrict chemicals from entering the land, the air, the water, and land at all levels that are harmful to public health and the environment.”
Regan said that the EPA will immediately broaden and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination. When the agency becomes aware of a situation where PFAS poses a serious threat to the health of a community, “we will not hesitate to take swift action, strong enforcement to address the threat and hold polluters accountable, all across the country.”
This strategy means EPA will work with other agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Department to identify facilities where PFAS have been used and are known to be a source of contamination.
Other actions include a final toxicity assessment of the substance known as GenX, “which will ensure that no other community has to go through what the Cape Fear River communities had to endure,” Regan said.
Biden has called for more than $10 billion in funding to help address PFAS contamination through the Build Back Better Agenda. “These critical resources will enable EPA and other federal agencies to scale up the research and work, so that they’re commiserate with the scale of the challenges that we all face together,” Regan said.
Regan highlighted work taking place in North Carolina, noting that Biser, the DEQ secretary, had recently issued a $300,000 fine to Chemours for failing to meet its obligation to protect state residents.
“Secretary Biser is setting the standard, this is the kind of accountability that we want to see all over the country, and that we will work with states to achieve,” Regan said.
He noted that across the country, lessons have been learned that can be shared and that every level of government will need to step up to protect the public. He also highlighted the need for continued partnerships with advocacy groups and community activists.
Regan said that some may question trust in the EPA because “so many communities have been let down before, time and time again,” adding that the public needs to see action. “I believe that the national strategy that we’re laying out shows and demonstrates strong and forceful action from EPA, a willingness to use all of our authority, all of our tools, all of our talent to tackle PFAS.”
He said the EPA pledges to “hold the polluters accountable for the decades of unchecked devastation that they’ve caused.”
- Aggressive timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure water is safe to drink in every community.
- A hazardous substance designation under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, to strengthen the ability to hold polluters financially accountable.
- Timelines for action, whether it is data collection or rulemaking, on Effluent Guideline Limitations under the Clean Water Act for nine industrial categories.
- A review of past actions on PFAS taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act to address those that are insufficiently protective.
- Increased monitoring, data collection and research so that the agency can identify what actions are needed and when to take them.
- A final toxicity assessment for GenX, which can be used to develop health advisories that will help communities make informed decisions to better protect human health and ecological wellness.
- Continued efforts to build the technical foundation needed on PFAS air emissions to inform future actions under the Clean Air Act.
Cooper introduced Regan Monday afternoon, highlighting North Carolina’s and the nation’s need for the plan.
“This roadmap commits the EPA to quickly setting enforceable drinking water limits for these chemicals, as well as giving us stronger tools, and giving them to communities, to protect people’s health and our environment. As we continue partnering with EPA on this and other important efforts. It’s critical that Congress pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal, and the larger budget resolution that includes funding to tackle PFAS contamination,” Cooper said.
Biser pledged state cooperation.
“We all have a lot of work ahead but with coordination at all levels of government, with our elected officials and our public servants, we can protect the communities and the residents throughout North Carolina, and across the nation,” she said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has been at the forefront of litigation on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch against Chemours in North Carolina to stop GenX and other PFAS pollution.
“SELC’s litigation under existing laws led to a consent order among Cape Fear River Watch, the state and Chemours to stop at least 99% of PFAS pollution that contaminated drinking water supplies for about 300,000 people in communities along the Cape Fear River,” the law center said in a statement.
Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney with the law center and leader of its Clean Water Program, said in a statement that the roadmap charts a course to important new protections while using existing authority to protect families and communities plagued by PFAS pollution.
“We have seen in North Carolina that when permitting agencies require industrial polluters to comply with existing laws, PFAS water pollution can be stopped at the source. EPA’s Roadmap pairs a plan for the future with the tools it currently has to stop ongoing contamination as the agency develops new standards,” Gisler said. “This roadmap, when fully implemented, could change the landscape in our efforts to protect communities from PFAS pollution. On this anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we’re a step closer to achieving its goals. While the roads to standards identified by EPA are necessarily long; the route to stopping ongoing pollution of our streams and rivers can and should be short.”
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, issued a statement that he was encouraged by the EPA’s urgency in dealing with a public health threat.
“This is truly a soup-to-nuts plan — one that commits to cleaning up PFAS in our environment while also putting protections in place to prevent more of these forever chemicals from finding their way into our lives. After the previous administration failed to follow through on its plan to address PFAS contamination, EPA’s new leadership promised action. I look forward to working with them on living up to this commitment.”
Ken Cook, president of the national nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said that communities contaminated by PFAS had waited decades for action.
“So, it’s good news that Administrator Regan will fulfill President Biden’s pledge to take quick action to reduce PFOA and PFOS in tap water, to restrict industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, and to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances to hold polluters accountable,” Cook said in a statement. “It’s been more than 20 years since EPA and EWG first learned that these toxic forever chemicals were building up in our blood and increasing our likelihood of cancer and other health harms. It’s time for action, not more plans, and that’s what this Administrator will deliver. As significant as these actions are, they are just the first of many actions needed to protect us from PFAS, as the Administrator has said.”
Environmental Working Group Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Scott Faber said that no one should have to worry about toxic chemicals in their tap water. “We’re grateful that Administrator Regan will fulfill President Biden’s pledge to address PFOA and PFOS in our tap water and will begin to turn off the tap of industrial PFAS pollution.”
The Environmental Protection Network is an organization composed of nearly 550 former EPA career staff and political appointees from across the country. The organization’s Betsy Southerland, former director of the Office of Science and Technology in EPA’s Office of Water, called EPA’s approach to restrict or ban current PFAS uses a critical piece of the plan.
“The actions detailed in the roadmap are essential first steps in reducing people’s exposure to these extremely dangerous chemicals, especially in communities already disproportionately impacted by pollution,” Southerland said. “While EPA will identify initial PFAS classes in the National Testing Strategy, the agency set tight deadlines for regulating individual PFAS chemicals in air, water, and waste, which will begin to drive stringent treatment requirements. EPA’s success in turning the roadmap into action will require the swift passage of a robust budget to give the agency adequate funding and staffing to get the job done.”