By Greg Barnes
On the eve of his last day as president, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump sent out a glowing news release highlighting its numerous efforts to protect people from toxic “forever chemicals.”
The news release was the last of many from the EPA that touted the agency’s successes in the waning months of Trump’s presidency.
In it, the EPA trumpeted the suite of actions that will “continue the significant progress” it has made to combat per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — found at elevated levels in drinking water in North Carolina and throughout the country.
In a study by the Environmental Working Group published last year, scientists said they “now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water.” The national nonprofit organization estimates that 200 million Americans may be drinking water containing the potential carcinogens.
In large enough concentrations, PFAS are associated with cancers of the thyroid, liver, testicles and kidneys. They are believed to suppress the immune system, raise cholesterol levels and cause low birth weight. Recent studies have found that PFAS may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus and less responsive to COVID-19 vaccines.
The compounds are used to make everyday products slippery — everything from nonstick pans, food packaging, rain gear and stain-resistant carpets. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment and accumulate in the human body.
Paved with good intentions
Which brings us back to the EPA and its glowing news release.
In it, then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlined the progress the agency made with its PFAS Action Plan, a 72-page document unveiled two years ago that promised to set maximum contaminant levels for two of the oldest and most persistent PFAS — perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — and to consider regulations on other types of the synthetic compounds.
“I am proud of the work EPA has done over the past two years under the PFAS Action Plan, which has touched every office in the agency and every region,” Wheeler said in the release. “Our commitment to our mission to protect public health and the environment from these emerging chemicals of concern has been unwavering and we have delivered results for every key commitment we made under the plan.”
According to the news release, the EPA plans to take the next step to regulate PFOA and PFOS and to “fast track evaluation of additional PFAS for future drinking water regulatory determinations if necessary information and data become available.”
The news release contains wording that makes it clear the EPA under Trump took a slow, methodical approach to curtail PFAS pollution.
Among many other statements, the release says the agency “is seeking comment about whether it should take any additional regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination in the environment.” That includes whether to declare certain types of PFAS as hazardous substances under Superfund laws.
The Biden administration has already indicated that it will seek to classify PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, and to take additional actions under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Biden has nominated Michael Regan, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, to head the EPA.
At a recent confirmation hearing, Regan vowed to make PFAS a priority.
“I can commit to you that on Day One that this is and will be a priority for this administration to set limits on how much of this chemical compound is entering into our air and our water,” Regan said.
Regan’s final confirmation has not yet come up for a vote.
Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, thinks the EPA under Trump prolonged significant and substantial PFAS regulations because it cozied up to the chemical industry.
“I think it’s because these are moneymakers for the chemical companies, and chemical companies are very generous in their donations for different congressional campaigns,” said Birnbaum, who retired as head of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program in late 2019.
The most recent example of the symbiotic relationship between chemical companies and lawmakers may be found in a petition filed in October by six North Carolina health and environmental groups. The groups asked the EPA to require the Chemours chemical company to have an independent panel of scientists conduct health studies on 54 types of PFAS known to have been manufactured — or produced as a byproduct — at the Chemours plant in Bladen County.
The EPA rejected the petition on Jan. 7, saying the petitioners failed to prove that the requested data was needed. The same groups have now asked the Biden administration for the same requirement and are awaiting a decision.
Environmental groups across the state and the country bemoan the EPA under Trump for failing to do more to handle the PFAS crisis.
“For communities who have been and continue to be exposed to PFAS on a daily basis, the Trump EPA’s plan had far too little action,” Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an email. “EPA has the tools to stop PFAS, it’s past time for the agency to use them. Nobody in North Carolina is better off following EPA’s actions. My hope is that the next EPA will treat PFAS contamination as the serious threat it is.”
Where are PFOA and PFOS regulations?
Jamie DeWitt is a researcher at East Carolina University who specializes in immune toxicology. She has been studying PFAS for more than 15 years and is firmly in the camp with those who believe PFAS should be regulated as a class.
DeWitt said researchers at the EPA under Trump made significant progress with evaluations of about 150 PFAS compounds at the molecular level and with developing new approach methodologies.
“I know that at least internally, the science is advancing very rapidly,” DeWitt said. “Whether or not that’s a result of the action plan, I don’t know, but I think it does reflect that at least at the scientific level there is time, attention and money given to PFAS.”
On the other hand, DeWitt said, she doesn’t understand why the EPA has yet to set maximum contaminant levels for the two oldest PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — whose health effects have been scientifically studied for decades.
“It seems like, at least for PFOA and PFOS, we have sufficient information on their toxicity, their occurrence and their use that moving forward at high speed with a maximum contaminant level would be possible,” DeWitt said. “I don’t know how long it takes to promulgate a new MCL under the Safe Water Drinking Act but it seems like this is something that could have been done by now.”
DeWitt notes that the European Union is proposing to restrict production and use of PFAS chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment, a move supported by almost 18,000 companies in the Confederation of Danish Industries. Last year, Denmark banned PFAS from all paper and cardboard food packaging.
DEQ gets an earful
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality hasn’t moved any faster than the EPA at regulating PFAS. Last month, the DEQ held a public hearing in which residents were asked to respond to proposed changes in the state’s groundwater standards, including those for PFOA and PFOS.
Last year, the DEQ proposed a new rule to the state’s Environmental Management Commission that would set the standard for PFOA and PFOS at a combined 70 parts per trillion, the same level the EPA has used as a health advisory since 2016. The state’s interim groundwater standard for PFOA has been 2,000 parts per trillion since 2006. There is no interim state standard for PFOS, a compound typically used in firefighting foam, stain-resistant carpeting and other consumer products.
Eighteen people spoke at the public hearing, most representing environmental groups, some were just everyday citizens whose drinking water has been contaminated by PFAS.
All of the speakers urged the DEQ to set lower groundwater standards for PFOA and PFOS than what is being proposed. Many said the standards for the two chemicals should be no higher than a combined 20 parts per trillion. Some said the standard should be set at 1 part per trillion, a figure a Harvard study says would be safe. Most said PFAS should be regulated as a class, not individually.
Many who spoke talked about health problems that they, their loved ones, their neighbors and even their pets are experiencing. Three speakers became emotional. Those affected by PFAS have been fighting this battle for years.
Mike Watters, administrator of the Facebook group Gray’s Creek Residents united against PFAS in our wells and Rivers, said an estimated 4,000 people in Cumberland, Bladen and Robeson counties are dealing with elevated levels of PFAS in their well water. The contamination came from DuPont and Chemours and got there through the air. Chemours has been ordered to provide affected homeowners with water filtration systems.
Watters lives about a half-mile from Chemours. He said he has 16 types of PFAS in his well water.
“I had the privilege today to have my first oncology appointment for leukemia and I know it’s caused by this water,” Watters said. “Same with the diverticulitis, the thyroid issues, the cholesterol issues. I’m begging the EMC not to use the 70 parts per trillion … Right now you can go with a lower quantity. It’s proven by science that these numbers are too high.”
Eleventh-hour EPA maneuvers
Detlef Knappe, a researcher at N.C. State University whose team discovered PFAS in extremely high concentrations downstream of the Chemours plant about six years ago, tends to avoid politics.
Instead, Knappe simply sent N.C. Health News an email referencing a Jan. 13 article from Politico about how political officials at Trump’s EPA overruled the agency’s career scientists to weaken a major health assessment for a PFAS compound called PFBS.
Industry uses PFBS — short for Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid — as a replacement for PFOS. The compound has been detected in drinking water from Pittsboro to the coast. It has been associated with potential adverse health effects of reproductive hormones, kidney, lung and thyroid function and high cholesterol at low levels of exposure.
Sources told POLITICO that political officials within the EPA replaced a proposed PFBS reference dose — a single number describing how toxic the chemical is to humans — with a weaker range of values.
“The changes to the safety assessment for the chemical PFBS, part of a class of ‘forever chemicals’ called PFAS, is the latest example of the Trump administration’s tailoring of science to align with its political agenda, and another in a series of eleventh-hour steps the administration has taken to hamstring President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to support aggressive environmental regulations,” Politico wrote.
That “tailoring of science” has contributed to plunging morale and employment at the EPA.
The New York Times reported on Feb. 1 that more than 700 EPA employees quit, retired or took a buyout during Trump’s first year in office, including more than 200 scientists. In a 2018 survey, 81 percent of EPA employees agreed that political interests “hindered the ability of their agencies to make science-based decisions.”
The EPA and 1,4 dioxane
The Cape Fear River basin is not only polluted with PFAS but also other troubling chemicals, perhaps none more so than 1,4 dioxane, which is typically used by industry as a solvent stabilizer. The substance can also be found as a byproduct in household cleaning and personal-care products, such as cosmetics. The EPA lists 1,4 dioxane as a probable carcinogen.
Discharges of high levels of 1,4 dioxane into the Cape Fear River basin have been common, especially in Greensboro, Reidsville, Asheboro and Burlington. The DEQ has proposed a special order by consent against Greensboro in an effort to stop 1,4 dioxane from flowing out of the city’s sewage treatment plant. A decision is pending.
But the issue of 1,4 dioxane may not be going away anytime soon, either.
In another 11th-hour move, Trump’s EPA in December issued a final risk evaluation for 1,4 dioxane, finding that exposure from surface water causes no unreasonable risks to the environment or the health of the general population. The risk evaluation was published in the National Register on Jan. 8.
The evaluation drew the ire of six health and environmental groups from North Carolina, as well as the national Center for Environmental Health based in Oakland, California. The six North Carolina organizations are Advance Carolina, Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Cape Fear, Democracy Green, Haw River Assembly and Toxic Free NC.
The organizations submitted a petition on Feb. 1 with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking a judicial review of the EPA’s evaluation.
“One in five North Carolinians get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River Basin. The watershed also has some of the highest levels of 1,4 dioxane in the entire country,” Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said in a joint news release. “1,4 dioxane represents a clear and present danger to millions of residents of the Cape Fear Basin and we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing as industrial pollutants poison our loved ones.”