The Environmental Protection Agency moved last week to designate two commonly used “forever chemicals” as hazardous under federal law, a long-awaited step that green groups welcomed as important while also warning it is inadequate to address the scale of toxic pollution caused by the increasingly ubiquitous substances.
The EPA said in a press release that it has proposed a rule to formally classify perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)—part of a long list of chemical compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—”as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as ‘Superfund.'”
“This rulemaking would increase transparency around releases of these harmful chemicals and help to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination,” the EPA said, noting that the rule would, “in certain circumstances, facilitate making the polluter pay by allowing EPA to seek to recover cleanup costs from a potentially responsible party or to require such a party to conduct the cleanup.”
The agency said it intends to publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register in the coming weeks, starting a 60-day public comment period during which the chemical lobby is expected to fight back against the new designation of common PFAS, mostly nondegradable substances that have been linked to cancer and detected in drinking water, soil, human blood, breast milk, and everyday household products.
“We urge EPA to listen to the communities who have been impacted by PFAS, and not be deterred from finalizing this rule by irrational comments from the polluters who created this public health crisis,” said Christine Santillana, the legislative representative at Earthjustice.
We are pleased that today the @EPA proposed to designate the two most notorious PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous substances.
It's time for EPA to address the whole PFAS class.
Communities deserve the full scope of protection. https://t.co/62Uh8icEL8
— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice) August 26, 2022
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents major PFAS polluters such as DuPont and 3M, wasted no time attacking the EPA proposal, calling it “an expensive, ineffective and unworkable means to achieve remediation for these chemicals.”
But environmentalists hailed the proposal as a major improvement over the status quo, under which the EPA has been accused of “doing the bare minimum” to monitor and combat PFAS contamination.
Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), called the rule “historic” and commended the Biden administration for signaling that “PFAS polluters will finally be forced to pay their fair share of cleaning up their mess.”
Activist and actor Mark Ruffalo, a longtime anti-PFAS campaigner, also applauded the EPA, declaring that “today’s historic announcement sends an unmistakable message: They were poisoning us, it must stop, and they must pay.”
“After knowingly poisoning their workers, neighbors, and virtually every living being on the planet, PFAS polluters will finally—FINALLY—be held accountable,” said Ruffalo. “We have all paid for decades—in the forms of higher care costs and higher drinking water bills—for one of the greatest environmental crimes in history. Now, finally, the polluters must pay.”
But the applause came with crucial caveats. Benesh acknowledged in an interview with the Washington Post that EPA’s new rule wouldn’t be enough to completely eliminate PFAS from manufacturing processes.
“Just naming something as a hazardous substance doesn’t really affect use,” said Benesh.
The EPA’s rule doesn’t ban PFOA or PFOS. Rather, as the agency explains, “releases of PFOA and PFOS that meet or exceed the reportable quantity would have to be reported” to the federal government if the regulation is finalized.
“A release of these or any other hazardous substance will not always lead to the need to clean up or add a site to the National Priorities List (NPL), liability, or an enforcement action,” the EPA said, adding that a “final rule would encourage better waste management and treatment practices by facilities handling PFOA or PFOS.”
Sonya Lunder, the Sierra Club’s senior toxics policy adviser, argued in a statement that “today’s action alone does not match the urgency of the problem.”
“EPA must rapidly assess and add other PFAS chemicals to Superfund and the [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] Hazardous Waste list,” said Lunder. “It must ensure PFAS waste is not transferred to marginalized communities who live near incinerators, landfills, and injection wells. PFAS producers, not the public, should bear the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites.”
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