Feds announce three-year plan to fight ‘forever chemicals’

By: - October 19, 2021 6:00 am

Cows with high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS at a farm in Maine. (Photo by Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg)

On the same day the White House announced its strategy to clean up dangerous chemicals that threaten safe drinking water, a nonprofit organization released long-withheld records showing that some 120,000 industrial facilities throughout the country “may be handling” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show that just in New Mexico, there are 277 facilities that may be handling PFAS, several times higher than previously reported figures. The information was produced in response to a record request by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“These figures show a scale of potential PFAS contamination in this country that is gargantuan,” said PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, who obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act.

Unfortunately, the data indicate that EPA has a very shaky grasp on who is using which chemicals and in what volumes.

– Tim Whitehouse, PEER executive director

The new federal plan will guide the response over the next three years to try and curb pollution from PFAS. The U.S. government plans to create a new national testing strategy to accelerate research, plus a proposal to designate certain PFAS as hazardous substances under existing law, and to take action to broaden and accelerate cleanup efforts.

The bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the “Build Back Better” agenda moving  through Congress would both put funding toward regulating PFAS.

PFAS are often called “forever chemicals,” because they are tough to break down.

The EPA announced plans in September to create the country’s first-ever rules for how much PFAS can be discharged into sewage treatment systems and surface waters from the organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers industries. They will also make a rule for industries that perform metal-finishing operations.

Two years ago the military confirmed there are PFAS in groundwater beneath Air Force bases in Clovis and outside Alamogordo and found the contaminants are caused by use of firefighting foams. The Department of Defense (DOD) is investigating possible PFAS contamination at five other bases across the state.

Different kinds of PFAS can lead to decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, increased cholesterol levels, or decreases in infant birth weights, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

In all, DOD is assessing cleanup at the nearly 700 bases and National Guard locations where PFAS was used or may have been released and expects to have completed all initial assessments by the end of 2023.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also expanding its testing for PFAS to determine how widespread the chemical is in U.S. residents’ food, including the general food supply and seafood specifically.

According to the Social Science Environmental Health Institute and the Environmental Working Group, states in the West are not doing a good job at regulating the pollutant. They lag in monitoring and curbing the chemicals’ seepage into drinking water. 

New Mexico’s Environment Department and attorney general are suing DOD over PFAS contamination.

Physicians for Social Responsibility found that at least three oil companies reported using PFAS in numerous fracking wells across New Mexico between 2012 and 2020.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.