Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will announce the Biden administration’s plan to address pollution from a persistent and widespread class of chemicals during an event Monday at N.C. State University.
Frequently called “forever chemicals,” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — consist of thousands of chemicals that are used in a wide array of human activities from hamburger wrappers to non-stick pans. The same hard-to-break-down qualities that make the chemicals valuable also mean that they pose a risk to those who are exposed to them.
The EPA’s PFAS plan will set out to clean up existing contamination, keep additional chemicals from being released, and lead to additional research. The agency will set what it calls an “aggressive” timeline to set drinking water limits; it will designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under federal Superfund laws; and review previous actions the agency has taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act to find any that didn’t provide enough protection.
Additionally, the EPA will embark on a testing effort requiring manufacturers of PFAS to provide toxicity information about categories of the chemicals, with more than 2,000 chemicals grouped together by their features.
Regan served as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality from 2017 until he was confirmed as EPA administrator earlier this year. Gov. Roy Cooper, who hired Regan in North Carolina, will join him during Monday’s remarks.
“These chemicals are impacting communities all across the country, and so as I’ve been traveling all across the country, it’s been chilling to see how many stories mirror the experience we had here in North Carolina,” Regan told The News & Observer.
The EPA’s actions are based on the work of the EPA’s Council on PFAS, a group of EPA experts Regan brought together in April to develop recommendations.
In his memo creating the Council on PFAS, Regan cited his experience in North Carolina. “In North Carolina, I also wanted strong federal leadership. Now, as the EPA’s Administrator, tackling this problem will be one of my top priorities. We will take meaningful action, following the science and following the law, to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by these chemicals.”
In 2017, the Wilmington StarNews reported on an N.C. State University study that showed PFAS contamination from the Chemours plant near the Bladen-Cumberland county line was making its way down the Cape Fear River and into the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people in Southeastern North Carolina.
PFAS chemicals have also been found in the Haw River basin, with particularly strong effects on the drinking water of Pittsboro in Chatham County.
For North Carolina communities, particularly those around Chemours’ plant and in the WIlmington area, the EPA plan includes a toxicity assessment for GenX to identify more specifically the risks it poses. That assessment will be used to craft a federal health advisory that will be published next spring, setting the level at which a lifetime of exposure would be expected to not impact health.
The GenX toxicity assessment will be issued “in a matter of days,” Regan said Monday. If that toxicity assessment had been available in 2017, Regan said: “That would have been hugely important for us as we looked at attempting to set a drinking water standard, determine how to best protect communities and move forward as a state.”
North Carolina has set a GenX drinking water health goal of 140 parts per trillion.
Chemours was formed when DuPont split in 2015, with the company’s chemical manufacturing facilities moving under the Chemours banner. That split came shortly after the human health risks of PFOA and PFOS, two widely used PFAS, became clear and legal liabilities began to mount, a story that was captured in the 2020 film Dark Waters.
DuPont — and then Chemours — began manufacturing GenX after the public became aware of the health risks posed by PFOA and PFOS.
Under the PFAS Roadmap, EPA will set a national drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, the first enforceable federal regulation for any kind of PFAS. There is currently a federal health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for a combined level of PFOA and PFOS.
The agency plans to publish a draft of that rule next fall and finalize it in 2023.
“Just as he did when PFAS reared its ugly head in North Carolina four years ago, Secretary Regan is taking decisive action to protect all Americans from forever chemicals and to hold corporations accountable,” Dan Crawford, the N.C. League of Conservation Voters’ director of government relations, wrote in a statement.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.