U.S. EPA Releases Action Plan on PFAS

On February 14, 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) released an Action Plan for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS. As discussed in our January 15, 2019 blog post, PFAS are a family of complex synthetic fluorinated compounds that have been in production since the mid-20th century. Potential environmental impacts from the manufacturing and use of PFAS are believed to be widespread since these compounds are persistent in the environment and degrade only under extreme circumstances. According to the U.S. EPA, there is evidence that repeated exposure to specific levels of certain PFAS compounds may lead to adverse health effects. The Action Plan outlines the U.S. EPA’s approach to identifying and understanding PFAS, approaches to addressing current PFAS contamination, measures to limit or prevent future exposure, and means by which information will be shared with the public.

U.S. EPA PFAS Action Plan cover
Image courtesy of the U.S. EPA.

Plan-Defined Objectives and Priorities

The Action Plan outlines primary objectives to address PFAS, including to:

  • Demonstrate the U.S. EPA’s commitment to short-and long-term strategies to address PFAS-related impacts;
  • Provide an information network and risk communication plan; and
  • Respond to extensive public input received by the U.S. EPA over the past few years.

The Action Plan also details key priorities that will allow for further regulation of PFAS, including potential enforcement against PFAS contamination and the establishment of protections for human health. These key priorities are:

  • Development of Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS);
  • Designation of PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA);
  • Development of interim cleanup guidance for PFOA and PFOS;
  • Identification of state and local authorities as the delegated regulatory enforcement entities, with the U.S. EPA as a secondary entity;
  • Finalization of toxicity assessments for related perfluoro chemicals, including those in the GenX group and polyfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS), and development of additional toxicity values for other PFAS chemicals;
  • Review of existing chemicals and development of new Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA);
  • Consideration of the addition of PFAS chemicals to the materials subject to Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting; and
  • Development of consistent messaging and informational materials at the federal, state, and local levels.
Chemical structure of PFAS and GenX chemicals, courtesy U.S. EPA
Image courtesy of the U.S. EPA. View the full infographic here (March 2018).

Action Plan Goals

Short-term goals, identified to be attainable within the next two years, include the compilation of available information and the coordination of additional efforts to:

  • Further understand and address the toxicity and occurrence of PFAS compounds;
  • Identify and address PFAS exposures, and
  • Effectively communicate potential risks and engage the public to address concerns.

Long-term actions, expected to require more than two years to complete, include topics that either require a significant amount of research or the development of policy that is not feasible in the short term, including:

  • Development of an inventory of PFAS releases;
  • Establishment of ambient water quality criteria to reduce PFAS releases;
  • Characterization of potential health impacts from a broader set of PFAS compounds;
  • Development of a PFAS data inventory;
  • Evaluation of ecological risk to develop benchmarks and thresholds to protect aquatic ecosystems; and
  • Study of the potential for atmospheric transport of PFAS.

Potential Regulatory Developments

Currently, there is some uncertainty in the environmental community as to how quickly the U.S. EPA will be able to enact specific portions of the plan. With regard to identifying PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under CERCLA, bills were recently introduced within the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 535, January 2019) and the U.S. Senate (S. 638, March 2019). The bills seek to designate all PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA, and are currently under review by the respective applicable committees. These bills have significant support and are projected to be approved by late 2019. The introduction of these bills is also expected to accelerate action by the U.S. EPA in developing MCLs for PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2019.

With regard to developing MCLs, the initial steps in this process have been completed for several PFAS compounds. Six PFAS compounds, including PFOS and PFOA, have been characterized in public water systems as part of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR). In addition, PFOS and PFOA were also added to the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 2018. Generally speaking, the addition of a compound to the CCL and evaluation as part of the UCMR are the initial steps in establishing an MCL. Once complete, it can take up to 24 months to develop a proposed rule as part of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR), and an additional 18 months for the proposed rule to be finalized. Therefore, by traditional means, MCLs for PFAS compounds would not be expected for several years. However, a special provision of the SDWA provides the U.S. EPA with the authority to respond to emergency conditions in which contamination threatens public health. As such, it is possible that the U.S. EPA may elect to shorten the process once defensible draft MCLs have been established.

CEC has been tracking the progression of PFAS regulatory activities, so stay tuned to CEC’s blog for updates as additional regulations are proposed or implemented. CEC’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) has formed a working group to stay up to date on the rapidly changing PFAS issues, including special techniques needed to sample and analyze for PFAS. Please reach out to Steve Maxwell (smaxwell@cecinc.com) or Brent Smith (brsmith@cecinc.com) if you would have any questions or wish to discuss the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan further.

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