Facing pressure from Congress and some state governments for tougher action around a class of chemicals used in fluoropolymer manufacturing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a long-awaited action plan on Feb. 14.
But EPA essentially kicked the can down the road on a key question: setting tougher safe levels in drinking water.
EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency will keep working on legal limits in water supplies around two chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid. PFOA has been a manufacturing aid in fluoropolymer production and today is at the center of water pollution concerns around some plastics factories.
EPA currently has an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water for the chemicals, but some states have been moving ahead on legally enforceable standards at much lower levels, in some cases below 20 ppt.
Congress has sent a flurry of letters to EPA in recent weeks urging action, including a Feb. 1 letter from 20 senators who expressed concern over recent media reports that the agency did not intend to set a new enforceable standard.
At a Feb. 14 news conference in Philadelphia, Wheeler said the agency will move forward.
"Contrary to misinformation in the press in recent weeks, EPA is moving forward with a maximum contaminant level or MCL process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS," Wheeler said. "The action plan commits EPA to take important steps."
He said EPA will propose new MCL standards by the end of the year, but he did not say what level the agency would use. It could still take years for those proposed standards to become final.
"We feel right now that 70 parts per trillion is the safe level for drinking water," Wheeler said. "As we go forward with the MCL, we will be looking to see whether or not lower levels are required according to where the science directs us."
But even with the differing state standards, Wheeler said EPA is still working on cleanups with regulators in states that are setting lower levels.
"Regardless of what the national number is, we can work with the states using their numbers today," Wheeler said.
New York is one of those states. Its Drinking Water Quality Council voted last month to recommend a 10 ppt standard.
The issue came to widespread public attention there in 2016 with contamination around Saint Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. factories in Hoosick Falls.
As well, DuPont Co. and Chemours Co. paid $670 million in 2017 to settle thousands of lawsuits over drinking water contamination from their fluoropolymer manufacturing plant in West Virginia.
Beyond setting an MCL, the EPA plan also includes potentially listing PFOA and PFOS under federal Superfund law, which could open up companies to paying more to fund cleanups.
Additionally, Wheeler said the new action plan would expand research and enforcement actions and possibly add the chemicals to Toxics Release Inventory, which would put them on a list of chemical emissions that factories are required to publicly disclose.
The class of chemicals, known broadly by the acronym PFAS, are used in a wide range of products, including firefighting foams and coatings for paper packaging, because of their strong performance, but they have been increasingly linked to health problems.
Wheeler and other EPA officials described the action plan as unprecedented in scope for the agency, pulling in staff from all of its programs to work on an emerging chemical issue and, for the first time, holding simultaneous news conferences in all 10 EPA regional offices, reflecting widespread national concern.
One local official deeply involved with concerns around the Saint Gobain factories criticized the EPA announcement as repeating what the agency's already said.
"This entire announcement has demonstrated the lack of guidance and leadership at the highest levels of EPA," Hoosick Falls Mayor Rob Allen said on his twitter feed. "When the country needed clear and tangible direction and guidelines on handling PFAS, we got a regurgitation of descriptor words with no clear action."
The Natural Resources Defense Council said it could take five to 10 years under federal law to finalize the standards EPA is proposing.
The American Chemistry Council said it looked forward to reviewing the details of the plan.
"We continue to support strong national leadership in addressing PFAS and firmly believe that EPA is best positioned to provide the public with a comprehensive strategy informed by a full understanding of the safety and benefits of different PFAS chemistries," ACC said.
Wheeler, who still faces a Senate confirmation vote to become the permanent EPA head, said the agency has to move deliberately on its rulemakings "in order to make sure they stand up in court."
He said EPA has not adopted any new MCLs since key changes were made in the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996.
"To be honest, the agency has not set a new MCL since the Act was passed in 1996, so we're charting a little new territory," Wheeler said. "I can't give you a definite answer as far as how long it will take. We have to go through the regulatory process as outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act and we're moving as quickly as we can."