Critics say EPA’s PFAS action plan too little, too late

Water inspection in Michigan
Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Thursday it will begin the early stages of establishing drinking water limits on two chemicals tied to cancer and other health problems.

Andrew Wheeler

Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said during a video conference with reporters that the federal agency will continue studying two of the most prevalent substances in a suite of roughly 5,000 chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Republican lawmakers from Michigan hailed the announcement as positive news. But Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists here say the plan to further study and announce a new enforceable standard by the end of the year falls short of protecting the public health.

The agency’s new action plan will work on setting a new maximum contaminant level (MCL) that would be enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS. By the end of the year, EPA will make an announcement about what that number will be.

Critics say it is essentially further delaying action after former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said last May that the federal agency would begin studying the chemical and looking into a national drinking water threshold. That process will now continue under Wheeler.

“PFAS chemical contamination is a public health crisis and the EPA must act with an urgency that matches the scale of the problem,” said U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), co-chairs of the Congressional PFAS Task Force. “While today’s announcement is a start, further aggressive and impactful actions must be taken by the Administration to protect Americans’ communities.

Dan Kildee

“As the leaders of the PFAS Task Force, we will never hesitate to hold the EPA accountable if it fails to follow through on its responsibility to protect public health,” they continued.

Last month, bipartisan legislation was introduced by Kildee, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), as the Advance reported. The bill instructs the administrator of the EPA to designate PFAS as a “hazardous substance.” The designation allows the agency to tap federal resources for remediation of contaminated sites.

Wheeler said during the press conference that he has “every intention of setting” a legal limit for PFOS and PFOA, two of the most common PFAS substances found in groundwater and in more than 1.5 million Michigan residents’ drinking water at low levels, an MLive investigation found.

And now a top U.S. Air Force official is set to visit to Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda where PFAS chemicals were discovered last year.

Former Fire Training Area #2 was operated at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan, from 1958-1991. PFAS chemicals have been discovered there | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

“We are still enforcing the current health advisory,” Wheeler added, pointing to eight enforcement actions across the country. “We’re not going to slow down on enforcing the current drinking water standard we have … we continue to use that in enforcement actions across the country.”

Wheeler later said that the federal government’s current advisory level of 70 parts per trillion “is a safe level for drinking water.”

Michigan U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) called the EPA’s announcement an “important first step.” He said that the state’s current testing — which found 70 communities with PFAS contamination across the state, including West Michigan — may be “merely the tip of the iceberg for our nation.

Bill Huizenga

“Even though the federal government has issued guidance of 70 parts per trillion, there is no qualified federal standard or defined maximum contaminant level for PFAS,” he said. “I believe a federal standard should be created however this process needs to be determined by public health officials and scientists, not politicians. I encourage the EPA to continue working to develop federally enforceable standards with urgency.”

The EPA’s current standard of 70 ppt is not currently enforceable under law, environmental experts in Michigan said. Wheeler disputed that during the press conference Thursday, pointing to eight instances across the U.S. in which the agency has been successful in convincing businesses to comply with the advisory level.

But environmentalists and Democrats disagree. They argue that if companies were to fight that in court, the agency would have no legal mechanism to compel compliance with the standard — hence the need for a legal limit.

They also argue that a limit of 70 ppt is not stringent enough to protect public health.

The limit should be at least 18 ppt while the agency and other scientists further study the health impacts of PFAS substances on human health to determine if it should be even lower, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. Clift said current studies already show the existing advisory level is too high to be protective.

Environmental contractors sample the groundwater from former fire training area #2 to check for PFAS at former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan | Breanne Humphreys, Air Force

“They have enough on their desk today to make the determination that they now have pushed off to the end of the year,” Clift said. “All of this stuff could have been done years ago, but they’ve just been dragging their feet.”

Michigan Democrats, including state Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) agree and say the Legislature should move to put such limits in place under state law.

“I think it’s insufficient and it’s not really a standard right now, it’s an advisory,” said Rabhi. “There’s enough studies out there that show it should be a lot lower than that. I’ve heard as low as 5 parts per trillion, to be protective of public health.”

Yousef Rabhi

Irwin agreed, and said the state should act now, but acknowledged that may be more difficult after the Legislature’s decision to overturn Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order, which shook up the Department of Environmental Quality and scrapped environmental rules panels that give a greater voice to industry concerns.

As the Advance reported, the Senate passed a measure overturning the order Thursday morning, following the House’s action last week. This was the first time in more than 40 years that the Legislature took such action.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder also signed a bill during last year’s Lame Duck session that would require much more scrutiny of any efforts to pass environmental rules stricter than federal standards.

Under Snyder, Michigan has conducted more PFAS sampling than any other state in the nation, according to the Michigan Environmental Council.

Whitmer will now take the reins and has agreed to keep a PFAS task force created under Snyder in place to address ongoing testing and perhaps cleanup. The Democratic governor said during her State of the State address Tuesday that PFAS contamination is a major problem confronting Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

The task force has released a report that questions whether 70 ppt is too high, but top Republican lawmakers have not said whether they intend to support state legislation to reduce it.

“Well the MPART study specifically says the study may be too high, it doesn’t say ‘probably.’ It says may be too high,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) during a press conference on Wednesday responding to Whitmer’s speech.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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