WASHINGTON – The Environmental Working Group applauds the Environmental Protection Agency for today proposing to designate the two most commonly detected toxic “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.
The designation of these two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous will jumpstart the cleanup process at contaminated sites across the country, including military installations. It falls under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, better known as Superfund.
The designation will also help ensure PFAS polluters contribute to cleanup costs.
“Today’s historic proposal will mean PFAS polluters are finally held accountable,” said EWG Vice President of Government Affairs Melanie Benesh. “For too long, they’ve had a free pass to dump PFAS into communities and poison their neighbors. Thanks to this proposal, PFAS polluters will finally be forced to pay their fair share of cleaning up their mess.”
A hazardous substance designation means releases of PFOA and PFOS over a certain threshold will trigger reporting requirements. Reports of releases will activate an investigation and potential cleanup. The designation will also give the EPA power to compel cleanups at some sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS.
And a hazardous substance designation would also help the EPA ensure that some polluters responsible for PFAS contamination pay for cleanup. The upfront costs, and sometimes the total costs, of cleanups are often paid by the EPA – that is, the American taxpayer – out of a Superfund account.
Use of these funds is largely limited to cleanups related to hazardous substances, and the money often isn’t enough. So the EPA finances many cleanups by suing the responsible polluters and then negotiates settlements for remaining costs. But it can only use this powerful tool to clean up contamination that’s received the hazardous substance designation.
Today’s proposal is the first time the EPA has used its authority under the Superfund law to designate new substances as hazardous. Some substances have been automatically added to the list of hazardous substances because of regulations the agency developed as a result of other environmental laws, like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
“After knowingly poisoning their workers, neighbors and virtually every living being on the planet, PFAS polluters will finally – FINALLY – be held accountable,” said Activist and Actor Mark Ruffalo. “We have all paid for decades – in the forms of higher care costs and higher drinking water bills – for one of the greatest environmental crimes in history. Now, finally, the polluters must pay.”
“Polluters will inevitably seek to shirk their responsibilities, and some legislators will inevitably act as their lackeys. But today’s historic announcement sends an unmistakable message: They were poisoning us, it must stop, and they must pay,” added Ruffalo.
Some PFAS polluters – and their supporters in Congress – have suggested this move would automatically lead to a ban on future uses of the chemicals. But that’s not true.
First, manufacturers have largely abandoned PFOA and PFOS, and de facto bans can’t be imposed for chemicals that have mostly been phased out because they’re so difficult to use.
Second, the Superfund law regulates the cleanup of hazardous substances, not the way they’re used. This designation will not prevent responsible manufacturers from continuing to use PFOA or PFOS. It addresses the cleanup of already contaminated sites and lets the EPA recover costs from polluters that are responsible.
“Manufacturers in multiple industries use hazardous substances every day, often in large quantities,” Benesh explained.
Almost 700 substances have been on the hazardous substances list since 1980, when Superfund became law. At least three-quarters of them, or 599, were likely still being used as late as 2019, EWG found in an analysis that year. Nearly half, or 339, were not only in production but were also likely produced at high volume. One of the most widely used chemicals in the world – sulfuric acid – has been on the list of hazardous substances for more than 40 years.
“The EPA’s proposal to designate these two particular forever chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law sends a loud and clear message to the entire world that the U.S. is finally acknowledging and accepting the now-overwhelming evidence that these man-made poisons present substantial danger to the public health and the environment,” said Rob Bilott, the attorney who uncovered the widespread presence of PFAS chemicals and whose story is told in his book Exposure and portrayed in the movie “Dark Waters.”
“It took over two decades to get here, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these PFAS forever chemicals have finally prevailed over the misinformation campaigns and corporate cover ups designed to mislead the public and delay action,” said Bilott.
“These are completely man-made toxins. We know who made them and pumped them out into our environment for decades, making billions of dollars in profit, all while exposing all of us to their ill effects and attempting to cover up the facts,” he said.
UPDATE on Sept. 2, 2022: Here are comments and statements leaders from health and environmental advocacy groups and communities have made about the significance of this designation.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.