PFAS Should be Named a Hazardous Substance

Ahead of Senate vote on EPA Superfund Nominee Peter Wright, Senators Carper and Casey decry EPA slow-walking, demand EPA declare PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ahead of the Senate’s vote this week on the nomination of Peter Wright, nominee to serve as assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM), which oversees EPA’s Superfund program, U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), reiterated their call for EPA to declare – or for Congress to designate by law – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. This designation would force responsible parties, including the Department of Defense, to pay for cleanups of sites with PFAS contamination. 

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are more than 100 military sites across the country with known PFAS contamination in drinking water or groundwater. In Pennsylvania, in 2016, the Department of Defense announced that it was assessing the risk of groundwater contamination from firefighting foam at 9 fire and crash testing sites. It is likely that those sites are all contaminated. In communities like Warminster, Warrington and Horsham, where Senator Casey hosted a roundtableearlier this year, Pennsylvanians living around former Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster have been found to have high levels of PFAS in their bloodstream. However, the Department of Defense has not paid for any remediation of the contamination. In some communities, Pennsylvanians have been forced to drink bottled water for years while awaiting cleanup of PFAS contamination in their drinking water systems.

“The EPA’s failure to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law is unacceptable,” said Senator Casey. “As the nominee to oversee the Superfund program, Peter Wright must commit to designating PFAS as hazardous substances, fulfilling the EPA’s promise from over a year ago and beginning the process of requiring DoD and other responsible parties to pay for cleanup of contaminated sites.”

“With the nomination of Peter Wright up for a vote on the Senate floor, we need to raise the alarm about designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. Even though former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt promised more than a year ago that EPA would make this designation, EPA hasn’t even issued a proposal, let alone a finalized one. Americans with PFAS contamination in their drinking water do not need any more empty promises and aspirational deadlines from EPA – they need certainty that contamination will be cleaned up. That certainty should be provided urgently and immediately,” Senator Carper said. 

What are PFAS? 

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, most commonly known as PFAS, are a class of man-made chemicals that include PFOA and PFOS. Developed in the 1940s, PFAS can be found across industries and in many products, including food packaging, nonstick pans, carpeting and military-grade firefighting foam.

These are highly persistent chemicals that have become ubiquitous in our environment, contaminating drinking water sources in communities across the country. It’s estimated that 99 percent of Americans have some level of PFAS in their bloodstream. These chemicals have been linked to adverse health impacts like cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility and hormone suppression.

What would the hazardous substance designation do?

Many communities with PFAS contamination are located near Department of Defense installations where firefighting foams that contained PFAS were used. Some have been forced to act on their own to clean up and mitigate the impacts of PFAS contamination. Designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law would assign liability to polluters, including the Department of Defense, to pay for cleanups at sites with PFAS contamination. In fact, DOD has in some cases justified its refusal to clean up PFAS contamination on grounds that the Superfund designation has not yet been made. Designating these substances as ‘hazardous’ would also unleash EPA resources to address cleanups of “orphan sites” where there is no identified liable polluter.  

Why hasn’t EPA set the hazardous substances designation?

In May 2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt held a PFAS National Leadership Summit and proudly announced four “concrete steps” that EPA would take to address PFAS contamination. The second of those four steps was that EPA would propose designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law. 

In February 2019, Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced EPA’s PFAS Action Plan, which was riddled with delays, inaction and, at best, aspirational deadlines that failed to address the urgency of PFAS contamination across the country. The plan did not make clear how long it will take to propose, let alone complete, the designation of PFAS as hazardous substances.

What comes next?

Last month, the U.S. Senate passed its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included several important provisions to address PFAS contamination. Notably, the legislation did not include provisions that would designate PFAS as hazardous substances. Senator Carper introduced an amendment that would have made this designation, based on his bill that Senator Casey and 30 other senators have cosponsored, however, members were not given the opportunity to vote on that amendment on the Senate floor.

During the floor debate on the nomination of Peter Wright, who has been working at EPA in an unconfirmed capacity for more than a year, Senators will be highlighting the Trump Administration’s failure to address PFAS contamination with an appropriate sense of urgency.