WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency must take a series of steps to protect public health and the environment from the toxic fluorinated “forever chemicals” known as PFAS from being incinerated or dumped in landfills, wrote more than 30 environmental and public health organizations in comments submitted to the agency this week.
The groups provided comments on the EPA’s interim guidance, released by the former Trump administration in December 2020, on the destruction and disposal of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and materials containing the chemical compounds.
Without clear and effective guidance from the EPA, communities across the country are struggling to find methods and technologies to manage waste contaminated with PFAS. Current methods don’t work and only perpetuate the lifecycle of pollution of these chemicals into land, air and drinking water sources, the groups warned.
PFAS chemicals, unlike many other pollutants, do not break down, making them some of the most persistent contaminants in the environment, which is also why they are in the blood of virtually every person on Earth.
PFAS chemicals are currently not regulated under the nation’s Clean Air, Clean Water or waste rules. Commenters expressed concerns that the interim guidance by the EPA, if adopted as currently written, would not provide adequate protection to the public, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, who often live near landfills and incineration facilities.
From the comments submitted to the EPA:
EPA has made two very important findings in the Interim Guidance that deserve emphasis. One is that technologies and practices in use are not effective in destroying PFAS chemicals or containing them from re-release. The other is that safe storage may be the best option at present. We urge EPA to take action necessary to address these findings.
Among those areas within the interim guidance the groups flagged and believe the EPA should immediately address are:
- Providing specific guidance for waste managers to safely contain and store PFAS wastes while new technologies are developed.
- Clarify its conclusions that available destruction and disposal technologies, reviewed in the document, cannot be viewed as safely destroying or disposing of PFAS compounds.
- Evaluating the specific impacts of unregulated disposal on vulnerable communities and outlining steps for addressing these environmental injustices.
“The EPA’s disposal guidance doesn’t go far enough to eliminate releases of PFAS into the environment due to unsafe disposal practices,” said EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh, who signed the letter on behalf of the organization. “It is paramount the agency take a series of steps now to protect vulnerable communities from additional pollution from disposal of PFAS waste.”
“EPA buried the lede in its guidance. PFAS shouldn't be sent to landfills or incinerators,” said Sonya Lunder, senior toxics policy advisor for the Sierra Club and lead author of the letter. “Waste managers need to store these harmful and toxic chemicals until advanced technologies are developed to safely destroy them. Anything else risks serious and lasting contamination of our air and water resources.”
“Chemical companies that make PFAS have irresponsibly churned out thousands of PFAS variations without finding a safe disposal option, leaving it up to individuals and communities to clean up their mess,” said Anna Reade, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. “Without clear guidance and action on PFAS disposal, EPA is giving the green light to current ineffective disposal technologies that neither protect communities from PFAS exposure nor force the chemical industry to take responsibility for unleashing ‘forever chemicals’ into the air, water and even the blood of every person living in the U.S.”
"Communities near landfills and incineration sites unfairly bear the burden of exposure to PFAS pollution,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “The EPA needs to identify those who are disproportionately impacted and protect these communities instead of continuing to let the problem fall on them."
In addition to quickly updating and reissuing the disposal guidance, the EPA should:
- Regulate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, and hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Halt PFAS incineration
- Regulate industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water
- Prohibit the land application of PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge
- Place a moratorium on the production of new PFAS chemicals
- Continue to invest in the development of advanced systems to safely destroy PFAS waste
The organizations that signed the comments to the EPA include:
Alaska Community Action on Toxics; Beyond Plastics; Breast Cancer Prevention Partners; Buckeye Environmental Network; Center for Biological Diversity; Center for Environmental Health; Clean and Healthy New York; Clean Cape Fear; Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund; Conservation Law Program; Defend Our Earth; EarthJustice; Eco-Healthy Solutions; Ecology Center; Environmental Working Group; Fight for Zero; Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition; Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water; NC Conservation Network; Natural Resources Defense Council; New England Public Employees Council for Environmental Responsibility; Oregon Environmental Council; Project PFOA New York; Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families; Sierra Club; Toxic-Free Future; United Congregations of Metro East; and Your Turnout Gear and PFOA.
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.