EPA refuses to promise federal limit on PFOA exposure
That's the level of PFOA exposure Michael Hickey of Hoosick Falls told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress federal regulators should permit in the nation's water.
But Hickey left a hearing at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday with no assurance that the EPA would soon set any national safety standard on the chemical that Hickey believes caused his father's cancer and death.
David Ross, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water, testified to a U.S. House of Representative committee Wednesday his agency is still evaluating whether, and at what level, to set a federal maximum contaminant level for PFAS and PFOAS.
Ross could not promise that a maximum contaminant level (MCL) would definitely be set until their evaluation is complete, he said. But a decision on setting a federal standard should be made before the end of the year, Ross added.
"It's disheartening," said Hickey, widely credited with discovering spotlight PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination in the drinking water of Hoosick Falls in 2014. "There is enough science out there to establish an MCL."
Hickey's frustration at the EPA's response to PFAs was echoed at the hearing by multiple Democratic lawmakers, most notably by Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, whose district includes Hoosick Falls.
Delgado flashed with anger as he grilled Ross over why the EPA would not commit to issuing an MCL for PFAS and PFOAs, accusing Ross of not being interested in protecting "human health."
"You're suggesting that you could go through this whole process and ultimately not land on an MCL," said Delgado. "You want folks all across this country to continue to wait and wait and wait on the off chance that maybe we'll get a point where you just might have enough information to issue an MCL. Is that what you're telling me?"
Delgado and other Democrats pressed the EPA to quickly set a federal standard on what exposure levels to the chemical are safe and regulate the discharge of PFAs and PFOAs in water sources. They also asked for further EPA study of the health impacts of the chemicals, which have been linked to cancers, thyroid diseases and other serious health problems.
A man-made chemical, PFOA has been used since the 1940s to make industrial and household products such as nonstick coatings, stain repellent and heat-resistant wiring. A related chemical, PFAs, that was used in firefighting foam has polluted military bases around the U.S., including Newburgh in the Hudson Valley.
Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., who chaired the hearing, called PFAs contamination a crisis.
"This is beyond an emerging contaminant in my state," said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. "We need a federal solution on this... we need a standard across the country."
Ross assured legislators that the EPA understood the gravity of the issue.
"You have my commitment that we share the urgency," Ross said. "We are doing everything we can as quickly as we can."
But Ross's inconclusive answer on whether an MCL would be set for the chemicals appears to be a step back from earlier this year, when Ross wrote a letter to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York saying the agency "intends to establish" a standard.
Delgado asked Ross in the hearing Wednesday whether his agency intended to set an MCL for the chemicals. Ross responded that he could not say one way or the other until the EPA's regulatory determination process was complete.
"It sounded like a backtrack," Delgado said after the hearing. "I was surprised by (Ross') testimony. I thought there would be some level of commitment to providing an MCL and it seemed like he was not willing to make that commitment today."
Ross said Wednesday the EPA was following its process outlined in its PFAS Action Plan announced in February to determine the need for and possible standard for an MCL. EPA scientists are now studying the numerous PFAs and PFOAs compound to determine their toxic profiles and health impacts and close what Ross called "the information gap."
"We are moving forward with the regulatory determination process for PFOA and PFAS," Ross said. "We are committed to getting that done by the end of the year and we're still on schedule."
The EPA does have a non-binding advisory limit set for PFOA exposure. It is seven times higher than New York state's MCL for PFOAs in drinking water, which is 10 parts per trillion.
PFAS contamination has been identified in nearly all states, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
Delgado and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, are working on legislation regarding PFAs. and PFOAs. Tonko will participate in negotiations with the U.S. Senate over a massive national defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, that includes PFAs provisions.
"PFAS chemicals have been entering our air and water for years now, putting countless American families and communities at risk of exposure to this dangerous and even deadly contaminant," Tonko said Tuesday. "Neither version of the NDAA we are negotiating here comes close to delivering all the solutions we will need to reduce environmental and health risks from PFAS. We need to prevent exposure and require remediation. However, I am grateful for this opportunity to keep fighting to strengthen the law to protect our families."
Also Tuesday, the EPA awarded $6 million to several organizations to study the environmental risks of PFAS in waste streams like landfills. The New York state Department of Health and the foundation Health Research, Inc. were awarded funds to analyze samples from 150 landfills in the state and build a database to understand the types and concentrations of PFAS in the state.
Hickey of Hoosick Falls met with Tonko and the staff of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York while in Washington this week. His comments before the House subcommittee Wednesday was his first time testifying before Congress although he has made several trips to D.C. as a PFOAs advocate, including an appearance as Delgado's guest at the 2019 State of the Union address.
Gillibrand, whose upstate home in Brunswick is about 20 miles from Hoosick Falls, is working on legislation that for the first time would place PFAS chemicals, including GenX, on the government's Toxic Release Inventory. Manufacturers using them would have to publicly report when the chemicals are released into the environment.