Congress, Environment, West Virginia Legislature

Sen. Capito, Delegate Hansen offer perspectives on EPA’s new, lower PFAS advisory levels

MORGANTOWN – A recent legislative look at a group of potentially hazardous chemicals – called PFAS – in West Virginia’s drinking water supply coincided with a U.S. EPA health advisory announcement lowering the recommended levels of PFAS.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has been a Senate leader in addressing PFAS contamination but said she’s concerned that the EPA’s new numbers are so minuscule that they’ll create their own problems.

The Dominion Post talked on Monday with a local delegate who is also a water quality expert about PFAS and the EPA’s numbers. He commends Capito for her national leadership on the issue but believes Capito’s concerns may be misplaced.

PFAS background

EPA explains that PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are synthetic chemicals manufactured and used by a broad range of industries since the 1940s. They are resistant to high and low temperatures and degradation and have nonstick characteristics (think Teflon). PFAS have been detected worldwide in the air, soil and water. Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS. There is evidence that exposure above specific levels to certain PFAS may cause adverse health effects.

The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes EPA to issue health advisories for certain contaminants that can cause human health effects and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water. They serve as information to drinking water systems and officials responsible for protecting public health when emergency spills or other contamination situations occur.

In announcing new lifetime health advisories for four PFAS chemicals EPA explained, “These advisories indicate the level of drinking water contamination below which adverse health effects are not expected to occur.” In other words, the numbers state the maximum safe concentration; any higher number is considered potentially hazardous.

EPA says its lifetime health advisories identify levels to protect all people, including sensitive populations and life stages, from adverse health effects resulting from a lifetime of exposure to the four PFAS in drinking water, taking into account other potential sources of exposure such as food, air and consumer products.

The new numbers

EPA released new interim advisories for two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, that also were the subject of the legislative report last week. PFOA’s level was reduced from 70 parts per trillion (ppt) to .004 ppt – 17,500 times lower. PFOS’s level was reduced from 70 ppt to .02 ppt – 3,500 times lower.

These will remain in place until EPA establishes a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation.

EPA also issued final health advisories for two other PFAS: PFBSs and HFPOs. HFPOs, known as GenX chemicals, are considered a replacement for PFOA. PFBS is considered a replacement for PFOS. Both are considered less potentially hazardous and have higher advisory number: 10 ppt for GenX, 2,000 ppt for PFBS.

Capito is ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works. Following EPA’s announcement, she said, “As one of the leaders in the Senate on PFAS, I am extremely disappointed EPA has decided to act so radically and rashly on such a bipartisan issue. Let’s be clear: No technologies exist for water systems to detect PFOA and PFOS contamination at the infinitesimal levels EPA has set in its proposed lifetime health advisory levels. EPA’s announcement will only increase confusion for water systems’ compliance efforts and further complicate risk communication to the public. Setting these impossible levels misleads the public into thinking their water isn’t safe, even when that may not be true.”

Capito said the federal government needs to focus its resources on communities with serious contamination issues to protect human health. “No water system in the country—in fact, not even bottled water—will be able to demonstrate compliance with standards EPA has set today. This decision made by the EPA further distracts from the real environmental and public challenges at hand, demonstrates the ideological nature of this policy choice, and may lead to litigation against the EPA itself.”

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, owns Morgantown water quality consulting firm Downstream Strategies. Prior to taking office, he advised the Legislature during its response to the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill and for several years has introduced – so far with no GOP support – the Clean Drinking Water Act to address PFAS at the state level.

Asked about Capito’s concerns, he said that it’s possible for state or federal contaminant levels to fall outside the technology to detect it. “This occurs from time to time already.”

In those cases, the water utility or permit holder will use the testing method that’s approved that has the lowest testing level. “As long as you show a non-detect, you’re in compliance.”

In response, Capito’s office delved a bit further into her concerns. The office said the problem is EPA’s risk communication to the general public. “The American people have just been told no water in the country is safe based on a threshold that can’t be measured.”

The EPA set a higher testing threshold, the office said, but the underlying message is that even water systems that “pass” on that measure may not be “safe” according to the advisory level. So that will cause panic and concern with people.

Non-detect does not mean compliance, her office said, and EPA has just received billions of dollars authorized and appropriated to address PFAS under a rational regulatory scheme. “A key takeaway from all of this is that the EPA is essentially making this a pass or fail test optically.”

Capito’s office also said there are major process issues. These are supposed to be advisory levels, but the testing threshold is making this verge on regulation, without a rulemaking process, public comment, or peer review.

On a positive note, Capito said she’s pleased that the EPA is moving quickly to begin distributing the $5 billion in funding for clean drinking water projects over five years provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. “I commend the EPA for letting the states direct these dollars to those communities most in need. This first year investment of $1 billion is urgently needed to help restore access to clean drinking water in towns and cities dealing with PFAS contamination.”

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