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After federal PFAS standards delay, environmental groups call for urgency

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Amy Robinson: 2022 ended a few weeks ago. That’s the year the EPA promised to set drinking water standards on toxic PFAS chemicals. Now, more than 100 groups are urging the Biden administration to release the standards without any more delay. I’m joined by Teresa Homsi, who has been following state and federal PFAS actions.

Robinson: Teresa, could you tell us a little more about the EPA’s promises?

Teresa Homsi: In 2021, the EPA established the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, and it sort of outlined all the federal steps they plan to take to address PFAS contamination. More than 200 million Americans are drinking PFAS-contaminated water. In Michigan, we’ve got 200+ contaminated sites, so the EPA has stepped in and said they’re going to take more responsibility.

Many of the promises have been met in the EPA’s roadmap so far. But one of the biggest promises was a federal drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS - the two most common and toxic PFAS compounds.

The standard was promised to be released in the fall of 2022. It was sent to the White House for review in early October. And I was even waiting for it. I thought “any day now.” I kept refreshing to see when they were going to release this, and now it’s January of 2023...

If it were introduced on the initial timeline, the standards would have been implemented later this year. But these delays might push back implementation even into 2024.

Robinson: What’s the significance of a federal drinking water standard?

Homsi: The state of Michigan has itsown regulatory standards for PFAS in drinking water. They’re called MCLs, that’s the “maximum contaminant level” or basically the allowable level of PFAS in drinking water.

A federal standard would come under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and it would set MCLs for all the state. Right now, not all states currently regulate PFAS in drinking water, so that would make it mandatory for states to do that, and it would give them a bit more enforcement power.

For example, in Oscoda on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, PFAS levels exceed state’s standards, but the Air Force has delayed taking responsibility for clean-up.

In making PFAS “hazardous substances” -which the EPA has already moved to do- and setting a federal drinking water standard, that’s putting a bigger authority on polluters. It’s a bigger deal to violate federal law as opposed to state law.

Robinson: So perhaps the $25,000 question, as we wait to see when the PFAS standards will come out of the federal level, what’s causing the delay?

Homsi: That’s a good question. I have no idea. I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. What I’ve been told before by an official in the Department of Defense: something like a federal drinking water standard goes out to all the state environmental departments, and they all review it, so the state probably already knows what these standards are. That same official told me they’re kind of in the ballpark of what Michigan’s MCLs are right now.

As far as when they’ll actually release them, there is a lot of pressure on the EPA. This is something that could come any day now. It could be sooner, it could be later, but it is coming. And we’ll just have to wait and see.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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