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Persistent Pollutants

US water utilities and states want data on PFAS production and use

Information would help pinpoint where this pollution is coming from

by Cheryl Hogue
May 23, 2019

Photo shows an aerial view of the Kingsport, Tennessee, water filtration plant.
Credit: Kingsport, Tennessee
Water utilities are seeking information from the chemical industry so they can identify potential sources of PFAS contamination.

US water utilities and state regulators want chemical manufacturers and processors to hand over data on past and current production and use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Congress is mulling over their request.

Utilities and regulators are struggling to address PFAS contamination that scientists are detecting in ground and surface waters that supply drinking water. Some of these synthetic compounds are linked to harmful effects in the liver and to the immune system, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. Other PFAS haven’t been tested for health effects. States and utilities want to identify where PFAS pollution is coming from.

“We need to know where PFAS compounds have been produced and in what volumes,” the American Water Works Association’s executive director of government affairs, G. Tracy Mehan III, said at a May 22 hearing. “We’ve tried to get that information, but it’s not that easy,” he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

For instance, Pennsylvania filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests seeking data on PFAS manufacture and use sites but came up empty-handed, said Lisa Daniels, director of the state’s Bureau of Safe Drinking Water. She spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

Mehan pointed out that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to gather such information from industry through the federal law governing chemical production, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Employing TSCA to pinpoint potential sources of PFAS pollution for the purpose of protecting sources of drinking water would be a new, strategic use of this law.

Congress should direct the EPA to collect information from industry on the location of current and past production, import, processing, and use of individual PFAS and compile it into a report that gets updated every 2 years, Mehan told the committee.

The EPA can also use TSCA to prevent new PFAS from getting into the environment, Daniels said. Under TSCA, the agency can bar release of a novel substance into air, water, or soil as a condition of allowing a company to make and market the chemical. For instance, EPA required first DuPont and then its spin-off Chemours to capture and destroy or recycle two PFAS, both fluoroethers, as a condition for allowing their manufacture. The agency cited Chemours in February for failing to control emissions of those fluoroethers to air and water.

“Actions under TSCA are needed to reduce or eliminate the introduction of these chemicals to the environment and place the responsibility on the manufacturers and producers of PFAS,” Daniels said. Once these chemicals get into the environment, they generally end up in water, which forces drinking water utilities to bear the costly burden of PFAS removal. “We can’t just solve this as a drinking water issue,” she said.

The Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing as it considers six bipartisan bills to address PFAS pollution. Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-WY) says he opposes some of those measures in their current form because the legislation would circumvent the federal public notice-and-comment process for regulation and bypass scientific assessment of individual PFAS by the EPA. But Barasso pledged to hammer out bipartisan legislation before 2021 to address PFAS pollution.


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