On PFAS, Weak Tea That Taxes Ordinary Americans and Absolves Corporate Cronies

The Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it will take long overdue next steps toward a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS, is more weak tea from an agency that for decades has ignored the threats posed by these “forever” chemicals.

It’s better late than never, but EPA’s decision to make a regulatory determination to develop a drinking water standard for PFOA, which was used to make Teflon, and PFOS, which was used to make Scotchgard, is just one step in a years-long process – at best.

By failing to address ongoing releases of PFAS pollution from industry – and by failing to require corporate polluters to clean up legacy PFAS – EPA is trying to pass the cost of the PFAS crisis on to the people the president claims to care about, ordinary Americans.

After all, the cost of meeting drinking water standards will be passed along in our water bills, not paid for by the companies that for decades made billions knowingly polluting our drinking water supplies.

In particular, Trump’s EPA has so far failed to clean up legacy PFAS pollution. Despite a pledge by former EPA boss Scott Pruitt, the agency has failed even to submit to the White House a proposal to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances, which would kick-start the cleanup process at the most contaminated sites and ensure that polluters pay their fair share. In fact, the Trump administration has actually weakened cleanup standards.

What’s more, EPA failed to reduce ongoing releases of PFAS. Although almost 500 industrial facilities could be discharging PFAS into the air and water, the EPA has done nothing to stop them. EPA finally established a rule to limit new uses of PFAS, but agency officials continued to approve new PFAS chemicals – despite failing to test whether they are any safer than the hundreds already on the market. 

Trump’s EPA is not alone. The Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to hide detections of PFAS in food. But EPA has a long history of failing to act. 

In 1998, EPA officials were first notified by 3M that PFAS chemicals were toxic. In 2001 the agency received internal company studies documenting PFAS’ health risks, and two years later received more animal studies. But under pressure from industry, in 2006, EPA said the agency was unaware of studies linking PFOA, used to make Teflon, to health harms – even though the agency had just fined DuPont for failing to report its health effects. EPA’s own Science Advisory Board found that PFOA was a likely human carcinogen.

Not until 2009 did the EPA issue its first PFAS action plan and establish a non-enforceable provisional health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, an ingredient in Scotchgard. The second PFAS action plan, issued a year ago, contains many of the same recommendations and includes no deadlines.

Without irony, EPA continues to tout the agency’s “aggressive” efforts to address PFAS pollution while threatening to veto House legislation that would set deadlines for EPA action on PFAS. 

It’s good news that EPA has finally decided to announce its intention to set a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, but it will take years for a final standard to be set – if ever. And passing the cost of the PFAS crisis on to water ratepayers – rather than corporate polluters – is exactly the kind of cynical crony capitalism we’ve come to expect from the Trump team.

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