BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled a new plan to assess and limit the danger posed by a group of manmade chemicals known as PFAS, which are linked to potentially deadly health problems.
Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management told the Indiana Environmental Reporter it is conducting PFAS “environmental oversight” with the Department of Defense on four former or current military installations.
The Department of Defense found that on-base groundwater monitoring wells on Indiana’s former Grissom Air Reserve Base tested positive for the contaminants in 2017. A DoD report released later that year listed the former Jefferson Proving Ground near Madison, Hulman Field in Terre Haute, and Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in Martin County as other sites where “newly discovered contaminants” may be present.
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled the “EPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Action Plan” on Valentine’s Day.
“The action plan commits EPA to take important steps that will improve how we research, monitor, detect and address PFAS,” Wheeler said. “Americans count on EPA every time they turn on their faucet. That’s why communities across the nation asked us to provide a comprehensive approach to understanding PFAS and protecting drinking water. Our action plan provides just that.”
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been used in many consumer and industrial products since the 1940s. PFAS were used to make water-, grease- or stain-resistant clothing, fabrics and other materials. They were also widely used in civilian and military firefighting foam.
PFAS have been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, liver damage and developmental problems in children.
PFAS exposure has been suspected in several Midwestern states. At least 30 sites in Michigan have confirmed PFAS contamination. Ohio has had at least five PFAS contamination sites. Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana have former military installations that tested positive for PFAS contamination.
Grissom Air Reserve Base, formerly Grissom Air Force Base, was identified as one of about 400 military installations with known or suspected use of PFAS. Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that contractors have taken samples around the facility to “assess and delineate” PFAS. IDEM says more samples will be taken in the future.
“An evaluation of the data is ongoing to determine if potential remediation may be needed,” IDEM said in an email. “However, no human health concerns with PFAS were identified.”
THE EPA’S PLAN
The EPA action plan separates all future PFAS action into three categories: priority, short-term and long-term.
EPA’s planned priority actions include proposing a national drinking water regulatory determination for PFAS; listing PFOA as a hazardous substance under the CERCLA or “Superfund” Act; finalizing toxicity assessments for PFAS chemicals; and developing interim cleanup recommendations. The EPA hopes to get some of these priority actions accomplished later this year.
The EPA’s proposed short- and long-term actions seek to understand, identify and address PFAS toxicity and occurrence.
Currently, the EPA’s only PFOA regulation is a non-enforceable 70 ppt drinking water health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, only two of thousands of substances that fall under what the EPA recognizes as a PFAS.
The EPA’s action plan sets into motion the regulatory steps required under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but does not immediately set a maximum contaminant level for PFAS, which would set the legal limit on the amount of PFAS allowed in a public water system.
Despite the long list of proposed actions in the plan, the process could end with PFAS regulations being the same as when the process began.
“We can’t predetermine what the outcome will be, because we take notice and comment. I have every intention of setting an MCL,” Wheeler said at a news conference in Philadelphia announcing the plan. “The important thing to remember, though, even while we’re been working on this process, we’re still enforcing the current health advisory.”
Wheeler says the action plan’s results will depend on input from stakeholders across the country. He says the EPA held various events to hear from citizens across the country and state and federal agencies.
NATIONAL INPUT, LOCAL EFFECT
One of the events that heavily affected the contents of the EPA’s PFAS action plan was the PFAS National Leadership Summit held in May 2018. During the conference, representatives from federal, state and private organizations shared their concerns about PFAS and the difficulties faced in removing them from the environment.
One of the agencies that attended the summit and contributed to the EPA’s understanding of nationwide PFAS knowledge was Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management.
Indiana environmental laws are tied directly to federal environmental laws, which are often set by the EPA. IDEM cannot immediately enforce any standards that exceed what the EPA has set. Because Indiana lawmakers have decided to limit their own ability to set environmental regulations, the state’s environment is at the mercy of EPA regulations. That makes Indiana’s input on federal laws even more important for Hoosiers.
IDEM’s Drinking Water Branch monitors Indiana’s drinking water for compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The branch monitors whether public water systems comply with a list of maximum allowable levels for different types of contaminants. The list includes inorganic chemicals, volatile organic compounds, disinfection byproducts, asbestos, lead, copper and radionuclides.
Currently, there is no maximum contaminant level for PFAS. Water systems are not bound by law to adhere to the 70 ppt, but IDEM says the maximum contaminant level will be implemented statewide as soon as a federal MCL is established.
“IDEM supports EPA’s initiative in producing a PFAS plan,” IDEM told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “While IDEM is working on assessing and addressing potential PFAS human health concerns in Indiana, IDEM continues to monitor all developments in the assessment of the health and environmental concerns raised by PFAS and potential regulatory responses by EPA and other states.”
The addition of a new maximum contaminant level would not guarantee that Indiana’s water systems are free of PFAS contamination. According to IDEM’s latest available compliance report, more than a quarter of the state’s drinking water systems were in violation of the state’s monitoring requirements.
The June 2018 report found that 1,409 out of the state’s 4,034 public water systems violated either the maximum contaminant level, treatment technique, monitoring & reporting standards or had some violation in their consumer confidence report. That number was up from 1,099 in 2014, 1,205 in 2015 and 1,289 in 2016. In all, there were 3,697 violations in 2018, with multiple violations in some systems. Of that total, the majority were related to failing to collect and/or report samples, and only 28 were community water system MCL violations.
IDEM says public water systems are required to submit data to evaluate compliance. If they’re found to be non-compliant, IDEM says it works with the systems to help them come back into compliance. Some violations may be referred for enforcement.
A new maximum contaminant level for PFAS would protect Hoosiers if drinking water systems are able to adhere to that new standard of drinking water protection.
Talk of a new MCL may be premature as, by Wheeler’s own admission, the EPA has not set a new standard since the act was passed in 1996.
“We’re charting new territory. I can’t give you a definite answer as far as how long it will take,” Wheeler said. “We have to go through the regulatory process as outlined in the safe drinking water act, and we’re moving as quickly as we can.”
AN EMERGING THREAT
Private companies have known PFAS had a harmful effect on humans since the 1970s.
The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, also known as 3M, began producing PFOA in the 1940s. In 1951, chemical company DuPont began buying PFOA from 3M in order to make its Teflon coating.
While representing a farmer who blamed DuPont for the deaths of his cattle, attorney Rob Bilott discovered that DuPont and 3M had been conducting secret medical studies on PFOA for more than four decades. Bilott discovered that DuPont researchers knew the chemical resisted degradation, , bound to plasma proteins in the blood and could increase the size of the liver in rats, rabbits and dogs.
In 1981, DuPont discovered high concentrations of PFOA in the blood of factory workers in a West Virginia plant. The company tested the children of pregnant employees and found that two out of seven births had eye defects. The company hid the finding.
Bilott also says that during the course of what became a class action lawsuit, he discovered that DuPont knew about a link between PFOA and cancerous tumors in lab animals.
DuPont, which has four facilities in Indiana, admits that it learned about the persistence of PFOA in the bodies of 3M workers and tried to protect its own employees, but says it “acted responsibly based on the health and environmental information that was available to the industry and regulators about PFOA at the time of its usage.”
In 2003, 3M stopped making PFOA, but DuPont began making its own. The following year DuPont settled the class action lawsuit. The company agreed to pay $70 million and install filtration plants in six affected water districts.
In Feb. 2018, 3M, which has plants in Hartford City and Indianapolis, agreed to a $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota after PFOA was found in the state’s drinking water.
DuPont says the company took “extremely conservative” measures to protect its workers because federal and state environmental authorities never established its own PFOA regulations. It stopped using PFOA in 2013.
NOT ENOUGH ACTION
Critics of the EPA’s action plan say the plan delays an obvious decision on chemicals already known to have harmful effects on humans.
Environmental advocacy group Earthjustice said the EPA’s action plan falls short of what is needed to protect communities.
“This is an action plan with no action,” said Earthjustice attorney Suzanne Novak. “Interim administrator Wheeler just released a long list of initiating steps that EPA should have been doing for the past few years, but no concrete actions.”
The Sierra Club, which also has a chapter in Indiana, says the plan doesn’t do enough to protect American families who have been drinking contaminated water for decades.
“We can’t wait another 10 minutes, let alone 10 years, for an enforceable toxic limit when water is contaminated today,” said the Sierra Club senior toxics policy advisor Sonya Lunder in a statement. “It’s obvious Wheeler is kicking the can down the road — but this is a national crisis, and he’s failing to protect the health and safety of American families.”