Trump administration refuses to set limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 5:34pm

PFAS

Lane Kizziah

Less than a year after the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency received backlash for attempting to block the publication of a federal study that concluded PFAS chemicals at low concentrations were dangerous, it is expected the Trump administration will not set a limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

According to the city of Ann Arbor’s site, samples collected from the city’s drinking water in the fall of 2018 revealed a rise in PFAS levels since 2016. Since the reported increase, Ann Arbor has been committed to monitoring PFAS levels. In late 2018, City Council approved a proposal to replace all of the city’s old carbon filters with new filters.

PFAS chemicals have been used for several decades in industrial and consumer products such as cookware and fire-retardant materials. Some scientific studies have shown PFAS chemicals can have significant health consequences such as learning and growth impairments in children, weakened immune systems, and increased risk of cancer. The EPA’s decision against a PFAS limit in drinking water would mean PFAS chemicals would remain largely unregulated.

In response to news of the EPA’s impending decision to continue to allow PFAS levels to be unregulated, 20 U.S. senators, including Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., penned a letter this week to acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to urge the EPA to set a limit for PFAS.

Devin Pascoe, a sophomore environmental engineering major, expressed her displeasure with the government’s lack of response to the health risks associated with PFAS. She said she believes the government could do more to address the health risks.

“It seems like the government is not addressing the issue in the manner that they should, especially since they were making citizens pay for testing their water themselves,” Pascoe said.

Despite the reluctance to establish PFAS limits, a draft of the EPA chemical plan states PFAS will be listed as a hazardous substance, a move that will make it easier to hold companies accountable for their waste. In January, U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Dan Kildee, D-Oscoda, introduced legislation to declare PFAS chemicals as hazardous. By listing PFAS as a hazardous chemical, the PFAS Action Act would allow the EPA to devote federal resources to clean up water in contaminated areas.

Dingell stated in a press release that PFAS are a threat to Michigan residents, and it was her desire by introducing the PFAS Action Act to urge the EPA to clean up Michigan’s drinking water.

“Michigan has been hit hard by PFAS,” Dingell said. “It’s clear it’s a threat to human health and our environment. It’s been found in our drinking water, air, food, and consumer products.”

Ann Arbor water treatment manager Brian Steglitz said he was confident Ann Arbor could easily meet new EPA standards if PFAS were listed as hazardous. Many states have acted independently to set limits on PFAS and Steglitz said Ann Arbor is currently planning to meet some of the strictest standards set by other states.

“The position in Ann Arbor we’re taking so far is attempting to meet the most stringent requirements that currently exist around the U.S. on regulating PFAS because many states have already taken that initiative,” Steglitz said. “So I think we would be well-positioned to meet any standards if they were legislated at the national or even state level.”

Steglitz said Ann Arbor’s current goal is to have levels of PFAS below 10 parts per trillion. According to Steglitz, Ann Arbor is on its way to meeting that goal, and because no states currently have any PFAS limits at that level, he believes Ann Arbor would have no issue with meeting any potential national limits.

“This is an emerging contaminant, so I feel very good about the work we have done to stay ahead of the regulatory curve,” Steglitz said. “But there’s a lot of research going on. Based on the information we know, we’re in a very good place.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order Monday to establish the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team as a permanent organization to continue to identify sources of PFAS and protect Michigan’s water. Created as a temporary team in 2017, MPART has already identified numerous contaminated sites in Michigan.

Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, said he was thrilled to see many Michigan officials respond to the threat of PFAS, despite the national administration’s reluctance. He explained Ann Arbor continues to monitor its water and to work with county and state officials to provide clean water for residents, but said more legislation will need to be passed to hold companies accountable.

“If you want the polluter to pay (to do the clean-up) then these standards are set, but if these standards are set real high, then they don’t have to do any clean-up,” Hayner said. “The bar is set very low for clean-up.”

Hayner believes more local control is needed to help protect environmental resources. He hopes legislation can change at either the state or federal level so cities can have more of a say in environmental issues.

“One of our big policy goals is to continue to work with our state representatives and our federal representatives to change these laws to allow local control over environmental issues for not just water, but for land use, wetland use, trees,” Hayner said.