On Thursday, the EPA released draft guidance detailing the cleanup of PFAS chemicals from groundwater. But environmental advocates in Pennsylvania and across the country quickly said they were too lax and ambiguous.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a much-anticipated draft document Thursday to address nationwide concerns over groundwater contaminated with a class of unregulated chemicals. But, a bevy of environmental advocates quickly decried it as too lax.
The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are used in products such as Teflon pans, stain-resistant clothing and food packaging. Particularly at issue are chemical family members perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, which were used by the military in firefighting foams that contaminated drinking water supplies in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
While the EPA has already developed a 70 parts per trillion (ppt) drinking water health advisory level for PFOS and PFOA, no formal standards or advisories exist to determine how much of the chemicals can be in groundwater before they have to be cleaned up. The absence of such levels has irked local residents and officials, who point out the toxic chemicals continue to leak off area military bases and into surrounding communities.
The “draft interim guidance” issued by the EPA Thursday, which was previewed by the agency last year and delayed from a targeted release date last fall, takes a first crack at addressing the issue. It proposes a 40-ppt “screening level,” which the agency says can be used to determine which areas need to be further investigated, and a 70-ppt “preliminary remediation goal,” which the agency says can “inform final cleanup levels” of PFOS or PFOA in groundwater when it is currently or could be used for drinking water.
The draft document further appears to explicitly state when the chemicals must be “addressed.”
“In situations where groundwater is being used for drinking water, EPA expects that responsible parties will address levels of PFOA and/or PFOS over 70 ppt,” the document reads.
In a prepared statement, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler touted the proposal’s release, calling it “one of the most important parts” of a PFAS Action Plan the agency has created.
“This interim guidance will support actions to protect the health of communities impacted by groundwater that contains PFOA and PFOS above the 70 parts per trillion level,” Wheeler said. “This is a critical tool for our state, tribal, and local partners to use to address these chemicals.”
But environmental groups did not share Wheeler’s enthusiasm. Following the early afternoon release, several advocates said the proposal lacks full authority due to its guidance standard and ambiguity.
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the draft document is an “important initial step” that could result in some PFAS cleanup, but also said there were “critical weaknesses.”
“It is only guidance, not a standard with legal muscle,” Carluccio said. “And the preliminary remediation goals are to be used as interim guidance, leaving the effort open to revision and prolonging the unstable federal policies that are hindering timely remediation of the contamination of water supplies and groundwater.”
Those familiar with the process also said the guidance lacked an “emergency action level” at which the EPA would commit to step in and remove the presence of the chemicals to protect public health. Betsy Southerland, a former researcher and director in the EPA’s Office of Water prior to leaving in 2017, said such a measure had been included prior to the proposal being submitted for “interagency review,” a process through which other government agencies can comment on a proposal.
“Without an emergency removal action level, the public does not know at what concentration EPA will step in to take action to protect people from contamination without waiting for a responsible party to be identified and required to address the contamination,” Southerland wrote in an email.
The office of U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, echoed those concerns.
?(It means) that people drinking water contaminated at levels well in excess of 70 ppt may not be entitled to safe drinking water during the months or years cleanup could take to complete,” a statement from his office read. “It also means that there is no assurance that EPA will step in.”
Carper expressed other concerns, including that the EPA would not guarantee cleanup of water supplies that could potentially be used for drinking water in the future. He also referenced statements he made last month, in which he said he had learned the U.S. military had been pushing for a 380-ppt cleanup standard as opposed to a 70-ppt standard. His office said the statement lacked any specific confirmation the military would be held to cleaning up groundwater to 70-ppt.
“After languishing in interagency review for months, the draft guidance finally released by EPA fails to adequately protect public health from this emerging crisis,” Carper said in his statement.
Southerland shared this concern, citing a section of the draft that said cleanup levels are “often modified” and that “site-specific” conditions could lead to different cleanup levels being developed.
“That may be the opening for DOD to declare 380 (ppt) as the cleanup level instead of 70 ppt,” Southerland said.
Others were less critical of the document overall, but advocated that cleanup levels should be lower.
“It’s good to see EPA finally moving forward with developing such guidelines but, as made clear through … more recent work of various states, these EPA numbers are still far too high and not adequately protective of public health,” Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney specializing in PFAS, said.
Alan Knauf, an attorney representing Newburgh, New York, in a case against the military and private manufacturers of firefighting foam, had similar sentiments.
“While it is a positive that EPA is moving forward on this, they should err on the side of caution and adopt the-10 ppt standards for PFOS and PFOA proposed for drinking water in New York,” Knauf said.
The EPA’s document does note that the cleanup “goals” do not take the place of appropriate state standards. The clarification is important for states such as New Jersey, which has PFOS and PFOA groundwater standards of 10 ppt as it works towards permanent standards of 13 and 14 ppt, respectively.
According to the EPA, the posting of the draft document opens a 45-day public comment period. Those interested can submit comments online by visiting www.epa.gov/pfas.
When asked about the process after the comment period closes, the EPA’s press office did not offer specifics.
“After the public comment period closes, EPA will review the comments received as we work to finalize the interim recommendations,” it wrote in an email.
*Original article online at https://www.theintell.com/news/20190426/critics-pan-epa-draft-of-pfas-cleanup-guidance/1