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Sparks

Forever Chemical Enforcement Just Got Even Stronger

In addition to regulating PFAS presence in water, the EPA will now target pollution at the source.

Drinking water and the periodic table.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Last week, I reported on the Environmental Protection Agency’s monumental new restrictions on “forever chemicals” in Americans’ drinking water. At the time, I stressed that the issue doesn’t end with the water that flows out of our kitchen and bathroom taps — the government also has a responsibility to hold polluters accountable at the source.

On Friday, the EPA did just that, designating perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a.k.a. PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, more commonly known as the Superfund law.

PFOA and PFOS are two of the most commonly used chemicals in a larger class known as PFAS, which have been linked to serious human health issues including cancer and decreased fertility. Nevertheless, we live in a world of PFAS; the chemicals are used in everything from the waterproofing of your rain jacket to the plastic containers that hold your takeout food. When I spoke with John Rumpler, the clean water director at Environment America, last week, he emphasized that a Superfund designation was one of the most important remaining steps the government could take to combat PFAS pollution and the resulting health impacts on Americans.

“You might have a site where they clean up the arsenic, and they clean up the chromium, and they clean up name-your-other-kinds-of-toxic-stuff — and then they leave the PFAS because nobody is requiring them to clean it up,” he told me.

PFAS are persistent not only because of their chemical composition, but because they’re extremely good at their jobs — whether it’s making a children’s jacket stain-resistant or putting out a gasoline fire. They are also extremely expensive and difficult to clean up once they end up in a river, stream, or the ocean — and almost inevitably, they will.

Under the new regulations, polluters will have to report any releases of PFOA or PFOS that meet or exceed one pound within a 24-hour period. This allows the EPA to use “one of its strongest enforcement tools to compel polluters to pay for or conduct investigations and cleanup, rather than taxpayers,” the administration wrote in its announcement. The development is significant not only because it will curb PFAS pollution, but because it will also eliminate one of the major pathways for these chemicals — which linger indefinitely in the environment — to end up in almost all of our bodies.

When we spoke before the announcement, Rumpler warned me that “all kinds of special interests are looking for exemptions from the liability” of the hazardous substance designation then-proposed by the EPA, so that will be another “battle to be fought.” Sure enough, the National Association of Manufacturers has already pushed back on the EPA’s rules, writing in a statement that the Superfund designation could mean “lengthy and costly litigation” for the manufacturing sector, municipal water districts, commercial airports, and others who use the chemicals. “Not only is this unfair but perhaps more important, it will not speed cleanups: It will do the opposite,” the interest group added.

Environmental groups are also sharpening their swords. In a measured statement, Emily Scarr, the director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Stop Toxic PFAS campaign, applauded the EPA for its Friday announcement but added that advocates can’t stop pushing for “phasing out [PFAS] use, stopping their discharge, and holding the chemical industry accountable for the harms they have caused to our health and environment.”

Of course, there are also all the PFAS that already exist in the environment — decades worth of “forevers” that have seeped into the groundwater or hang unassumingly in our closets. But as Ken Cook, the president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group, said in a statement Friday, the EPA’s move is a “first step to bring justice to those who have been harmed.” Hopefully, now the rest of the steps will follow.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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