Editorials, Opinion

Legislature hobbled PFAS Protection Act

In September 2022, we editorialized on the U.S. Geological Survey report on the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in West Virginia’s water, which found 37 of 279 water intake sites across the state had levels higher than the EPA’s drinking water health advisory.  

Back then, we told you how “PFAS” is an umbrella term that encapsulates many related chemicals that are used in a variety of industries and products, from pots and pans (think “non-stick”) to clothes to carpets and rugs to food wrappers and even fire extinguisher foam. It’s believed these “forever chemicals” (so called because they accumulate but never go away) can be found in virtually every person’s body. They are linked to a variety of health issues, including but not limited to, kidney and testicular cancer, immune suppression, neurodevelopmental disorders, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis and decreased fertility. 

If you want to understand the full catastrophic impact PFAS can have on people, animals and the environment, watch the movie “Dark Waters” — which details how DuPont chemicals poisoned residents in and around Parkersburg for decades and really should be required viewing for all West Virginians — or read the article the film was based on, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich. 

So we were excited when the West Virginia Legislature dedicated some of its precious time to crafting the PFAS Protection Act (HB 3189). The PFAS Protection Act recognizes the EPA revised standards for two types of PFAS — PFOS and PFOA — from 70 parts per trillion (or 70 nanograms per liter) to 4 parts per trillion, which put a total of 137 water sources above the limit. The law requires the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to go back and resample the treated water at those 137 sites, try to determine the sources and amend permits to require PFAS monitoring as needed. In addition, industries that use PFAS chemicals must report their usage to the DEP, and the DEP will “modify the facility’s West Virginia/National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit as directed by the federal Clean Water Act and State Water Pollution Control Act, after consultation with relevant [EPA] guidance.”  

And we thought, surely this means lawmakers are finally taking steps toward limiting or eliminating these toxic chemicals that have ruined countless lives, particularly in West Virginia — until the Senate amended the law so the DEP’s criteria cannot exceed the least stringent standards set by the EPA. 

But the EPA just set a really strict standard, right? Four parts for trillion is a microscopic amount!  

Sure, but EPA standards are meant to be a floor, not a ceiling: They set the absolute bare minimum states should meet and, unfortunately, those standards change as frequently as power does in Washington. Under former President Obama, in 2015, the EPA proposed a Significant New Use Rule, or SNUR, covering all consumer products that would have required companies to get the EPA’s approval before manufacturing or importing materials containing PFAS. Former President Trump’s administration promptly gutted this rule, and the EPA under Trump took no other action on PFAS. 

The DEP should not only be allowed to establish stricter standards than the EPA, but it should be encouraged to do so to protect it from fluctuations in national politics. Besides, no one knows better than West Virginians just how harmful these chemicals can be and just how willing companies are to dump their toxic waste in our waters. 

By tying the DEP’s enforcement ability to EPA standards, lawmakers have essentially put West Virginians’ health in Washington’s hands.