By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has a big problem on his hands, and it isn’t that people are saying mean things to him on airplanes. The problem is that a class of toxic chemicals commonly linked (by EPA) to cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems, and other harms is showing up in drinking water systems all over the country. And drinking water is only one likely source of exposure—these “Teflon” chemicals, collectively known as “PFAS”—are also used for their non-stick and stain-resistant properties in food packaging, cookware, carpets, textiles and a host of other uses (we don’t actually know all the places they are currently being used, or might be used, which is another part of the problem).
The problem with PFAS chemicals isn’t exactly a secret, and certainly not at EPA. Last year, DuPont and its spin-off company “Chemours” agreed to pay a $670 million to settle more than 3,500 lawsuits stemming from the company’s year’s long pollution of the water, air and soil in Parkersburg, West Virginia, including dumping PFAS in the river and downstream drinking water supplies. Several individual plaintiffs had already won cases of millions of dollars against DuPont for harm juries concluded were caused by the contamination, including kidney cancer. This appalling environmental disaster is thoroughly documented here. DuPont and “Chemours” have also dumped PFAS for years into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina—another drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people. And PFAS have been found in hundreds of drinking water systems, affecting millions of peopleacross dozens of states. Meanwhile, 3M in February paid $850 million to settle claims with the state of Minnesota for polluting groundwater, and faces at least two dozen similar groundwater pollution cases.
Pruitt has done essentially nothing to address this public health crisis since taking over as Administrator of EPA more than a year ago. Nothing except appoint a chemical industry lobbyist—Toxic Chemical Enthusiast Nancy Beck—to run EPA’s now-Orwellian titled Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, and temporarily hire industry consultant Michael “Too Toxic for Senate Confirmation” Dourson as a special advisor. Dourson previously recommended to West Virginia a safety level for PFAS in drinking water 50 to 150 times weaker than even DuPont had recommended at the time.
But in the face of rising anger from the public, and pressure from the states Pruitt appears to have decisively taken two actions: First, he (and/or his staff) worked to suppress a reportfrom the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) from being released to the public—because the science showed that that PFAS chemicals are unsafe at exposure levels much lower than those established by EPA. In what will likely go down as a signature infamous quote from Pruitt’s tenure as (Anti-) Administrator, an unnamed White House staffer fretted in an email conversation that “The impact [of the ATSDR’s health report] to EPA and DOD is going to be extremely painful. We (DOD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.” Really? As painful as kidney cancer?
Now, Scott Pruitt knows from public relations nightmares, and the Trump Administration’s attempt to suppress information about the harm posed by carcinogens in our drinking water is certain to be even more “painful” than whatever was feared from the ATSDR report. The report cannot stay hidden, and a thorough investigation is now being called for to get to the bottom of the attempt by Pruitt or others to suppress it. As they say, it’s always the coverup that gets you.
Second, Pruitt called a meeting, now being called a PFAS “Summit,” which is taking place today (May 22nd) in Washington DC. My colleague Erik Olson will be speaking at the Summit, and some of what he’ll be calling on Scott Pruitt and the Trump Administration to do to protect the public from PFAS is outlined below. Unfortunately, apparently few if any of the people from affected communities around the country, or the firefighters who are heavily exposed to PFAS through firefighting foams, or advocates who have personally experienced the local conditions related to the pollution and contamination in their states have been invited. It’s hard to see how you can call something a “Summit” meeting if you aren’t inviting the people most directly affected by the issue that is the topic of the Summit. It’s like calling a summit on black lung and not inviting the coal miners. Scott Pruitt needs to get over his fear of the American people and sit down and listen to their concerns about the pollution in their communities and their desire (and demands) for clean drinking water, not just fly over them on the way to his next meeting with industry officials and trade associations.
The real problem for Scott Pruitt (and also Nancy Beck) is that they appear to be wholly incapable of—and completely disinterested in—taking any action that is not requested and approved by the chemical industry. So Pruitt will hold a “Summit,” but it is extremely unlikely that he will take any meaningful step to address the PFAS crisis. Listed below are some of steps that Scott Pruitt needs to take to protect the public from PFAS chemicals, using the tools at his disposal under various laws to gather information about the chemical, how and where it is being used, how the public is being exposed; and to adopt restrictions that will protect the public. This list can also be used as a scorecard to measure the actions of Scott Pruitt against whatever he says about protecting the public from PFAS being a “priority.” If (when?) the public learns that Scott Pruitt is not going to do anything to protect them from toxics in drinking water—because his interests lie with DuPont, “Chemours,” and 3M—they will surely call for him to be fired. And, if they have an opportunity, they will probably also say mean things to him when they see him on an airplane.
Scott Pruitt’s To Do (or Not To Do) List on Toxic PFAS Chemicals
Ensure Appropriate Regulation and Cleanup of PFASs
1. Control PFAS in industrial water discharges. List class of PFASs as toxic pollutants under CWA §307(a) & as hazardous substances under CWA §311
2. Ensure Superfund Cleanups. Designate the class of PFASs as a “hazardous substance” under CERCLA §102
3. Ensure hazardous wastes with PFASs are carefully managed. Designate & regulate PFAS-containing waste as hazardous (RCRA §3001, characteristic waste)
4. Ban new uses of PFASs and new PFASs. Issue Significant New Use Rules for all PFASs, including use in articles. Prohibit new PFAS under New Chemicals Program
5. Assist States to identify & clean up PFASs in water and soil. EPA should develop analytical methods for all PFAS in water and soil
Require Data and Disclosure about PFASs
6. Disclose and Require Toxicity Testing of PFASs. TSCA test order for all PFASs. Summarize & disclose all available data on PFAS toxicity, request & disclose EU-collected data.
7. List PFASs as toxic chemicals under the Toxic Release Inventory. List PFASs under the TRI provisions of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act §§313(d) & 328, & the Pollution Prevention Act §6607
8. Summarize, Disclose Chemical Data Reporting info on Production, Location of PFASs. The revised TSCA Chemical Data Reporting Rule should require reporting of PFAS production with no/very low threshold.
9. Monitor PFASs in Drinking Water. States & EPA should require a fuller round of Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring of drinking water for more PFASs. Should include at least the ~30 PFASs that can be detected using the same EPA test method, not just the 6 included earlier.
10. Collect and disclose to the public:
a. All detects of PFAS by public water systems
b. Where/how much PFAS companies manufacture(d) and sold to downstream processors; where big PFAS users/processors are/were located, how much was used, and environmental releases.
Ensure Drinking Water Is Protected from PFASs
11. Develop and validate testing methods and cleanup/treatment technologies for all PFASs. EPA, with help from DOD and USGS (and ideally with DOD paying) should develop and/or validate water testing methods/analytical methods and treatment technologies for the PFASs.