EPA finally launches major effort to curb PFAS pollution, to mixed reviews about whether it’s enough

By: - October 20, 2021 6:00 am
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who formerly served as NC DEQ secretary, unveiled the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap at NC State University on Monday. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The Lake Raleigh fishing pier lies 80 miles north of Ground Zero for the toxic compound GenX, the Chemours chemical plant near the Bladen-Cumberland county line. Presumably, you could safely eat the fish caught from this lake, which is on the NC State University campus, but given the widespread PFAS contamination of North Carolina’s waterways, only testing could tell you for sure.

It was against this autumn backdrop of changing leaves and wind-nudged waves that EPA Administrator Michael Regan on Monday unveiled the agency’s “PFAS Strategic Roadmap.” The 26-page document lays out nearly 40 proposed actions to assess the hazards of PFAS compounds, including GenX, through 2024. 

In addition to assessing the compounds’ toxicity, the roadmap proposes to set a national drinking water standard within the next three to four years. The agency plans to require industry to control their discharges, with the ultimate goal of regulating them in the environment. The EPA also could revisit past regulatory actions on PFAS and “address those that are insufficiently protective.”

“I am proud to stand before you today … to put into motion EPA’s comprehensive national strategy to confront this pervasive challenge,” Regan said.

Also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS have been linked to multiple and often serious health problems: thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancer, reproductive issues, low-birth weight, high cholesterol, and a depressed immune system.

There are at least 5,000 types of PFAS, which are specifically manufactured or are the byproducts of industrial processes. PFAS are found in many consumer products, including fast food packaging, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, carpeting, furniture, fire-fighting foam, Teflon cookware, and stain- and water-resistant materials.

PFAS are widespread in the environment in the U.S. and globally. The staggering scope of the potential contamination is reflected in the EPA’s own data. The Trump administration had refused to provide the data to the nonprofit group PEER — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, under the Freedom of Information Act. PEER sued the EPA while Trump was in office; the Biden administration provided the information, which shows that an estimated 120,000 facilities nationwide “may handle” PFAS.

Of those, roughly 1,600 are in North Carolina, where only a few counties are spared. Facilities include airports and wastewater treatment plants; plastics, electronics and chemical manufacturers; textiles and paper mills. Most — 1,200 — are within three miles of communities where at least a quarter of residents are low-income or persons of color.

Public drinking water supplies in many of these communities — Wilmington, Pittsboro, Leland — as well as private water wells, have been contaminated with PFAS. This has forced some towns to spend millions on new treatment systems, while private well owners seek alternative sources for their water.

The Environmental Working Group pinpointed 2,854 known contaminated sites in all 50 states and two U.S. territories.

EPA to force industry to disclose toxicity of chemicals

In North Carolina, Chemours is among the main sources of PFAS. The state required the company to stop discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River in 2017, but since the compounds, known as “forever chemicals,” don’t break down in the environment, they remain in the drinking water supply.

“Since the 1970s, they knew they were putting these chemicals into our environment, and yet they remained silent while the profits went up all the time,” Regan said.

PFAS from other sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, have also been found in compost and, within the past year, foam that accumulates in waterways.

Faced with this environmental crisis, the EPA is first requiring industry to “disclose in great detail just how toxic these chemicals are,” Regan said. “It would take EPA decades to do this on our own, at the expense of American families and the American taxpayer. But instead, the polluters who are poisoning our nation’s waterways will be responsible for conducting and paying for this work.”

Over the next three years, Regan said the EPA will establish national drinking water regulations for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Most states, including North Carolina, have no legally enforceable drinking water standards, and use ambiguous “health advisory goals” instead. 

The health advisory goal in drinking water for GenX is 140 parts per trillion; for PFOA and PFOS it is 70 ppt combined. However the NC Department of Environmental Quality has recommended not to drink water that contains any individual compound at greater than 10 ppt.

This lack of federal guidance has created a patchwork of state regulations; people can be exposed to high levels of the compounds based on where they live.

Regan said the EPA plans to list some types of PFAS as hazardous substances under EPA Superfund law. Environmental advocates have consistently asked the federal government to do this, in part because it requires polluters to pay for all or part of the cleanup.

It is difficult and very expensive to remove PFAS from the environment; the compounds were designed for longevity. Last year DEQ rejected Chemours’ corrective action plan to remediate GenX in the groundwater near the Fayetteville Works plant because it was not protective. The expanse of the contamination is so vast — at least 70 square miles — that the company said it couldn’t cost-effectively meet the state’s requests.

As for the EPA’s Strategic Roadmap, Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall said the company had reviewed it, and commended the agency  “for compiling a comprehensive, science-based approach.” 

“While additional detail is needed for many of the initiatives, Chemours is supportive of the framework approach and looks forward to engaging in the process moving forward.  We believe the voluntary stewardship program recommended by the agency could help achieve meaningful progress in reducing emissions while several of the initiatives work their way through the regulatory process,” Randall wrote in an email.

Locations of the 1,600 sites where the EPA believes PFAS could be handled. (Map by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), based on EPA data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act)

Reaction to EPA roadmap is mixed

The EPA’s announcement was met with mixed reviews. Several environmental groups, such as the NC League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, were pleased to see specific actions with dates attached to them, a significant improvement over the previous EPA administration’s listless response. 

Geoff Gisler, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the plan “when  fully implemented, could change the landscape in our efforts to protect communities from PFAS pollution. While the roads to standards identified by EPA are necessarily long; the route to stopping ongoing pollution of our streams and rivers can and should be short.” 

Others, though, were underwhelmed. The protracted timeline means millions of people will still be drinking contaminated water for years; the roadmap does little to quickly improve their lives. Daniel Rosenberg, director of Federal Toxics Policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the roadmap contains “some potentially positive steps, but the plans announced today are not enough, or fast enough.”

Attorney Rob Bilott, who successfully sued DuPont on behalf of West Virginia residents who had been poisoned by PFAS in their drinking water, tweeted, “Where is the actual ACTION by @EPA here? It’s been over 20 years since we asked EPA to take enforceable concrete action on #PFAS and still more talk and “plans” to act maybe next year or  … the year after that …”



Since May 2017, when the Wilmington Star-News reported on an NC State study that found GenX in the Cape Fear River, the drinking water supply for 1.5 million people, concerned residents have been whipsawed by federal promises — promises that have been unfulfilled.

Even before the mixed reviews came in, Regan acknowledged the pending skepticism.

“I know many will ask, ‘Well, why should we trust EPA right now?’” Regan said. “So many communities have been let down before time and time again. You’re tired of us sounding the alarm. You’re tired of worrying. You’re tired of feeling like no one’s listening.”

In North Carolina, there has been a lot of listening, but less meaningful action. In 2018 under the Trump administration, the EPA held a listening session in Fayetteville about GenX. Dozens of people who relied on the Cape Fear River for their drinking water told agency officials of their mysterious cancers in their family, their own health problems, the death of a child shortly after birth. They wondered if the PFAS-contaminated water, which they had drunk for years, contributed to their misery and grief.

Nothing happened.

In 2020, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler visited Fayetteville for a roundtable of elected officials. At that event, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson told Wheeler he was “encouraged by the speed of the [EPA’s] action plan” on PFAS.

Again, nothing significant happened. 

“One thing that I’ve learned throughout my career is trust must be earned,” Regan said. “I know that you need to see action. I believe that the national strategy that we’re laying out, shows and demonstrates strong and forceful action from EPA, a willingness to use all of our authority, all of our tools, all of our talents to tackle it.”

State lawmakers’ attention to the crisis has been equally anemic. Shortly after the crisis emerged in 2017, the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality met seven times over six months. (Its Senate counterpart met just once.) Nothing substantive came out of those meetings.

A handful of environmentally minded legislators have introduced multiple bills, ranging from an outright ban on the manufacture of PFAS to limits on industrial discharge. Neither the House nor Senate leadership advanced the measures, however, and they stalled in committee.

Various iterations of the state budget would fund additional positions at the NC Department of Environmental Quality specifically for PFAS, but the budget remains in limbo.

DEQ’s role has been hampered in part by previous budget cuts, as well as legislative constraints — or, critics say, the agency’s reticence — to fully wield its legal authority. 

DEQ fined Chemours $12 million in 2018 related to PFAS contamination; this year the agency has penalized the company another $500,000 for air emissions and water quality violations. Critics point out that these amounts barely dent the company’s profitability — $329 million in net revenue on $5 billion in sales last year. The agency’s response to newer forms of PFAS contamination — in foam in waterways, for example — is still reactive rather than proactive.

NC DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, who was confirmed by the state legislature just two months ago, said Monday that the EPA and the states must coordinate to address the PFAS contamination. “This roadmap means more data, more resources and more support for the state’s actions to protect our residents and our drinking waters,” she said.

Grady McCallie, policy director for the NC Conservation Network, said the EPA’s action “recognizes that states have the authority to curb toxic discharges of PFAS and other forever chemicals into rivers and drinking water sources, and we’re thankful that EPA will encourage states to use this discretion. North Carolina families are depending on the NC Department of Environmental Quality to do so expeditiously.”

By the end of the month, Regan said the EPA will release a final toxicity assessment for GenX. That document will allow the public and state officials to better understand the risks to human health and the environment. It could also inform a regulatory standard.

The assessment, Regan said, “will ensure that no other community has to go through what the Cape Fear River communities had to endure.

“We have a long way to go,” Regan said. “But we are going to get this right together, not with rhetoric, but with real solutions, and a pledge to hold the polluters accountable for the decades of unchecked devastation that they caused.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.