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BAKER: Half-Baked PFAS Plans Could Cost Local Governments Billions

Americans should have at least a passing knowledge of PFAS, but they may want to get educated on the topic fast. New action that the federal government is considering around disposal of these chemicals, even though the science surrounding the issue is far from settled, may very soon affect your wallet directly.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, are a group of more than 5,000 chemicals used in many item we depend on every day from electronics to carpeting and furniture. Most have not been determined to be harmful to humans, and the few PFAS compounds that have been deemed as such were previously phased out by industry on a voluntary basis. 

But rather than recognizing the unique chemical makeup and uses of these individual compounds, environmentalists,  the media and trial lawyers have all used cherry-picked data to stoke public health fears about the effect of these chemicals in drinking water and have called for lumping them all together as one for the purposes of regulation and litigation.

In the wake of such pressure campaigns, there is now a push in Washington to engage in knee-jerk regulation. Congress is considering legislation known as the PFAS Action Act, which would effectively ban these chemicals outright by limiting the introduction of PFAS chemicals into commerce. 

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is on the verge of naming several PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund. This massive overreach of federal authority and lack of regulatory guidance would cause serious unintended consequences that would affect municipal landfills all across the country.

The EPA is pushing through this regulation without understanding PFAS. Among the things the EPA acknowledges it doesn’t “fully understand yet” about PFAS are how to better and more efficiently detect the chemical, how harmful the chemical is to people and the environment, and — most important — “how to manage and dispose of PFAS.” Put simply, the EPA should not designate PFAS as a hazardous substance if it cannot provide guidance and infrastructure for its disposal.

This significant lack of disposal methods surrounding PFAS under Superfund will cause municipalities and their taxpayers to incur significant costs. When PFAS are contained in everything from nonstick cookware, water resistant clothing like rain jackets, shampoo, makeup and even dental floss, everything becomes hazardous waste. Every municipality in the country would have to change its waste-handling practices at significant expense. One estimate from the National Waste & Recycling Association found that the increased costs associated with such hazardous waste disposal methods for PFAS could total as much a $6.27 billion in additional costs annually for municipal solid-waste landfills. These are fees that taxpayers grappling with inflation and higher costs of everything from fuel to food will not be able to afford.

As a former county commissioner in Pennsylvania, I have firsthand experience with how proper management of waste management can make or break a local government. While in office my colleagues and I took the innovative step of purchasing an existing landfill that had the potential to expand to fulfill the future trash disposal needs of our county. We quickly found in the process that state and federal regulations could spell success or failure, and we navigated them appropriately. It was our view that in a populous and growing county, the need for space for clean disposal was critical, even though not a highly visible aspect of local government. But given the uncertainties of these new PFAS regulations, I am seriously concerned about the future viability of such models.

Most Americans are aware of the ways the federal government continues to encroach on every aspect of their lives, but they don’t usually think that includes their trash. The EPA though is once again in the process of crafting onerous regulations that will have significant effects for countless Americans without proper scientific justification. 

As Congress continues to consider its PFAS bill and we move closer to the final 2023 guidance deadline for the proposed EPA rule, we must be sure to continue to hold our elected officials as well as the EPA accountable for providing reasonable regulations.

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PA DEP Eyes Higher Standards for Forever Chemicals in Water

With the opening of a public comment period on Feb. 26, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took a step closer to establishing thresholds for per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water–chemicals linked to multiple health problems.

If enacted, those standards would be tighter than those in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 health advisory and bear relevance to the struggles of residents in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, where PFAS chemicals infiltrated groundwater supplies due to decades-long military base operations.

The proposed DEP rule would set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for two classes of PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which have the most numerous associations with damaging health conditions, including kidney cancer, developmental disorders, and high cholesterol.

PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam used at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Willow Grove (both now closed) are considered the principal source of PFAS contamination in these communities.

Hope Grosse, a co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, has lived most of her life near the bases. She drank the local water and as a child used to enjoy watching the thrice-weekly military firefighting drills, during which plumes of chemical-laden smoke drifted across into her neighborhood.

She blames the numerous health problems in her family, neighbors, and lifetime acquaintances on the prevalence of PFAS compounds in water supplies in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

“I have had a lifetime exposure to PFAS and a lot of other chemicals, and the combination of these is frightening. I had stage IV melanoma cancer, my father died of a brain tumor, and all of our animals died (prematurely). Our federal government should be handling this as an emergency,” she said.

To better understand the health effects of PFAS exposure for base area residents and personnel in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, a team of investigators is leading the Pennsylvania PFAS Multi-site Health Study, which, among other things, will evaluate the connection between disease prevalence and blood serum PFAS levels in study participants.

Enrollment began in late 2021 but is lagging for children and families who have been difficult to recruit, according to study investigator Linda Morris Brown, MPH, DrPH, an epidemiologist. Participation involves one-time blood and urine sample collection and answering a set of health questions. Individual results will be provided to participants. Brown encourages peoples who lived or worked in the area between 2005 and 2017 to sign up. The phone number is (877) 267-2890.

“There have been very few studies in communities that had distinctive exposure sources, where they have somewhat elevated exposures relative to background levels that are more typical; this is one of the sites around the country that was selected for doing this research. What it will do is address directly the question of health effects from the levels of exposure” Brown said.

The DEP draft rule would set an MCL of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and an MCL of 18 ppt for PFOS. The EPA’s drinking water guideline, which is nonbinding, established a health advisory level of 70 ppt combined for PFOS and PFOA. The DEP’s proposed standards are very similar to ones established by the New Jersey DEP in June 2020. The Garden State has seen extensive PFAS contamination from military base activities and chemical plant production.

PFAS chemicals are carbon-chain compounds that are useful for their indestructible and non-slip qualities. They repel water and grease and resist heat degradation. Therefore, those substances are used in many industrial and consumer product applications and are present in a multitude of products, including clothing, carpeting, cooking pots and food liners. There are more than 4,700 PFAS compounds in existence.

“PFAS describes not just one chemical, but a whole array of different chemicals that have certain similar chemical structures and properties,” said David Savitz, Ph.D., an investigator with the Multi-site Health Study and a Brown University professor of epidemiology.

Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomeryville), a resident of the Willow Grove area, described the groundwater contamination as being “largely under control,” due to water filtration and other mitigation measures carried out partly with grant money he sought from the Military Installation Remediation and Infrastructure Authority (MIRIA).

“These chemicals, once they’re in the ground, they don’t stay put. They travel in the aquifer. It’s not isolated to just one community. There’s a lot of remediation that’s been underway in the surrounding communities as well,” he said.

The EPA has faced criticism for its failure so far to take a tougher stand on PFAS chemicals. In 2021, the agency moved toward establishing a national drinking water standard for PFAS and improve monitoring, testing, and data collection for the compounds.

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