Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Under Regan’s watch, EPA vows to get tough on PFAS, regulations underway

For decades, Chemours released PFAS substances it knew to be toxic into the Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

The Environmental Protection Agency is pledging to unleash its full regulatory arsenal on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) polluters. 

In a news conference in Raleigh Tuesday, former N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan, appointed by President Joe Biden in March to head the EPA, returned to his home state to share the agency’s strategic plan to confront the unregulated PFAS compounds. 

Under the framework announced, a final toxicity assessment for GenX –– one of thousands of manmade compounds that grabbed headlines for its presence in treated drinking water –– is expected in the coming days.

Industrial polluters will receive mandatory toxicity testing orders “within a couple of months,” Reagan said. These orders will arrive as part of a national testing strategy to determine the toxicity of PFAS that the EPA could not accomplish on its own. 

When the EPA is prepared to introduce drinking water regulations, it will address PFAS in categories and groups rather than as individual chemicals (officials did not state a timeline in the news conference but the EPA’s assistant administrator for water told the Washington Post the agency is trying to beat the statutory deadline of March 2023).

The forthcoming regulations will be introduced in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and will designate some PFAS as hazardous substances under existing Superfund laws, Regan said. 

Addressing the disappointment of advocates and residents who don’t trust empty promises after years of inaction, Regan said he was laser-focused on holding polluters accountable. Upon being confirmed, Regan said PFAS was a top priority, and he immediately set up an EPA Council on PFAS the following month. The path announced Monday arose out of the work from that group. 

“This year, my team has done more in eight months to address this issue than the previous administration did in 48 months,” Regan said. 

Governor Roy Cooper, who appointed Regan to the state’s top environmental post in January 2017, addressed the lack of support or action from federal regulators under former President Donald Trump’s administration. 

“All along, we’ve been asking for the EPA’s help, which never, ever, came during the previous administration,” Cooper said. “We needed more action and more support from Washington but found ourselves disappointed time after time –– until now.”

Officials held the announcement on the grounds of N.C. State University, the institution that supported the researchers who first discovered the prominence of PFAS in finished drinking water in a paper published in November 2016. The scientists shared their findings with DEQ and utility leaders at the time.

It wasn’t until the research was covered in the local newspaper seven months later that DEQ announced it would address the problem, introducing an unenforceable drinking water advisory for GenX the day the article was published. 

At the conference Tuesday, officials touted the state’s consent order with Chemours –– the Dupont spinoff responsible for PFAS contamination. However, it’s worth noting this consent order, which demands a 99% reduction in PFAS discharges and emissions, only arose after the Cape Fear River Watch sued the agency to force it to hold Chemours accountable. 

Chemours had released contaminants it knew to be toxic for decades. PFAS have been linked to thyroid and liver issues, low infant birth weight, and certain cancers. Much is still unknown about the full extent of health effects caused by PFAS exposure. Contamination is so widespread in the environment an estimated 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. 

“In North Carolina, we were hindered by a General Assembly that had significantly weakened DEQ, budget cut after budget cut,” Regan said. “Enough is enough.”

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