EPA continues to make measurable progress toward the milestones it established in its 2021 PFAS road map. It has arranged for an assessment of the risks posed by these "forever chemicals" and concluded, based on those assessments, that PFAS, particularly in drinking water, are an "urgent public health and environmental issue".
How urgent? Today EPA proposed a Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, the two most studied PFAS.
While some states, like Massachusetts, require action for even lower concentrations of PFAS, whether you're talking about single parts per trillion or double digit parts per quadrillion, you're talking about concentrations so small they're at the limit of what can be detected. How small? Safeopedia explains that one part per trillion is equivalent to a single drop of food coloring in 18 million gallons of water.
As one would expect in the face of such a dire conclusion, EPA has also announced a "National Enforcement and Compliance Initiative" or "NECI" to begin to prevent PFAS from entering our environment in the first place, and to address the PFAS that are already present in hundreds if not thousands of communities at concentrations now concerning to EPA after PFAS have been used for generations.
Inside EPA reports that the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators is more than a little bit ambivalent about EPA's PFAS initiative. The ASDWA doesn't take issue with EPA's conclusions about the risks of PFAS but it is honest about the struggle of those responsible for providing us safe drinking water to keep up with current requirements, including those relating to lead which has been known to be harmful for a lot longer than PFAS, let alone requirements relating to PFAS which are not yet on the books. Those new PFAS requirements are going to require expensive and energy consuming additional water treatment, and also much more expensive disposition of water treatment sludge, among other things. And so the ASDWA says "EPA must rethink its current proposed actions related to PFAS in a more comprehensive manner that focuses on source control, risk assessment, and the establishment of a true 'polluter pays' model for PFAS cleanups."
The ASDWA has a point which brings to mind Steve Martin's answer to how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes. He helpfully instructs "first get a million dollars." It is one thing to determine that it is unacceptable for PFAS to be present in our environment at any measurable concentration; it is quite another thing to marshal the resources to do something meaningful about it. It would seem that the first step would be to stop using PFAS in so many ways that inevitably result in more PFAS in our air and water. To be fair, EPA's initiative has something to say about that too.
The bottom line is that getting where EPA says we need to get when it comes to PFAS (not to mention lead and a whole host of other issues) is going to cost billions and billions of dollars. Some of those billions were provided in the Inflation Reduction Act but many billions more will be needed, certainly beyond the capacity of many if not most of the communities served by members of the Association of Safe Drinking Water Administrators. It is certainly fair for the Association to point out that all of us, including EPA, need to consider the sources of those billions as EPA is requiring that they be spent.
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