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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

New EPA regulation to set PFAS levels well below federal advisory level

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announcing the new regulation on UNCW’s campus Tuesday. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

WILMINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to push through a new regulation on PFAS levels in drinking water, but it won’t be enforced for nearly four years.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the new rule at UNCW’s amphitheater Tuesday morning. Once in effect, the legacy chemicals PFOA and PFOS, banned from manufacturing processes, will not be allowed to exceed concentrations of 4 parts per trillion in drinking water. The EPA’s current health advisory sets safe levels at below 10 parts per trillion.

READ MORE: No ruling yet as impacted communities plea for EPA to grant PFAS testing in federal hearing

GenX, PFNA, PFHxS and PFBS, compounds still in use, will be tested as a group and must fall below the EPA’s complex Hazard Index calculations.

The regulation would also require monitoring of the chemicals, that utilities notify the public about the data and levels be reduced if they exceed the standards. 

This is the first federal regulation of this class of chemicals in drinking water. Regan told Port City Daily the EPA intends to finalize the new rules by the end of this year; however, water utilities will have three years to come into compliance.

To a crowd of 20, Regan said the chemicals are so pervasive they are found everywhere from nonstick pans to cleaning products.

“It’s their resilient and durable qualities that make these chemicals so useful in everyday life, but it’s also what makes them particularly harmful to people and the environment,” Regan said. “What began as a so-called miracle and groundbreaking technology meant for practicality and convenience quickly devolved into one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.”

The first PFAS chemicals were created in the 1930s and used as ingredients in nonstick coatings. In the nearly 100 years since, they have gone through iterations of development, regulations and bans in the manufacturing process, including on PFOA and PFOS in consumer products in the 2010s.

Regan noted PFAS are so durable — earning them the nickname “forever chemicals” — they have been found in food, soil and water in the most remote corners of the planet. He estimated the rule will prevent “thousands” of deaths due to exposure to the chemicals.

Long-term exposure to PFAS is associated with a litany of health issues, including high cholesterol, liver damage and cancer. The Wilmington area has led the charge on PFAS awareness and remediation because of the decades-long pollution into the Cape Fear River by Chemours Fayetteville Works factory, uncovered by StarNews in 2017.

Emily Donovan, co-founder of the nonprofit Clean Cape Fear, said a federal regulation is something the organization has been pushing for since it was founded in the wake of the news report.

“We learned about GenX not from our water district, we never received a notice in the mail,” Donovan said at the conference. “We first learned about GenX from the newspaper when a local investigative reporter accidentally stumbled upon a scientific paper published six months prior about a whole bunch of toxic chemicals called PFAS in this town’s tap water. We felt angry, worried and betrayed.”

Donovan said existing regulations were deficient and her group was told the water met state and federal guidelines because there were none with regard to PFAS. Clean Cape Fear and other organizations, such as Cape Fear River Watch, have been fighting for a federal standard for years and ran into resistance from utility associations.

“But today, that is starting to change,” Donovan said. “Today is about more than just PFOA and PFOS, it’s about addressing commercially relevant PFAS like GenX.”

Donovan credited Regan for taking action when other administrators did nothing.

The new rules do not cross the web of outstanding lawsuits and legal issues involving Chemours’ pollution record. Currently, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is suing Chemours to get it to pay for its expensive mitigation measures. In October the utility company announced its granular activated carbon filters at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant were effectively removing the chemicals, but the new filters carried a $43 million price tag. Customers are carrying its financial burden and the filters are expected to cost $5 million each year to maintain.

A consortium of nonprofits, including Clean Cape Fear, are actively suing the EPA, hoping to compel the agency to require Chemours to fund studies on 54 contaminants.

Meanwhile, Chemours is suing the EPA over a health advisory released in June.

At the state level, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch issued a consent order in 2019 that requires Chemours to lower? its PFAS emissions by 99.9%, among other measures. The order has resulted in years of back-and-forth between the company and NCDEQ over permitting.

EPA will host webinars about its proposed regulations on March 16 and 29. On May 4, the EPA will hold an online public hearing on the issue. Attendees must register here.

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