Public begs for PFAS cleanup, feds announce ‘interim strategy’ for monitoring

Laura Paskus

December 1, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an interim strategy last week for some states and territories to address contamination from PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. According to the recommendations, states like New Mexico can consider requiring monitoring for PFAS when granting wastewater discharge permits to military facilities or companies where PFAS are expected to be present.   

The recommendations are part of the EPA’s “PFAS Action Plan,” which has yet to set drinking water standards for PFAS. Such federal standards would allow states to require that companies or federal installations clean up PFAS that pollutes drinking water.  

Michigan residents are waiting to hear back from the Air Force after sending a letter about their concerns over PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. In the Iosco County News-Herald, Jenny Haglund reports: “[Need Our Water] Co-Lead Cathy Wusterbarth said the communication was also sent to the state, and it involves a request for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to hold the USAF accountable for all known contamination plumes – not just those on the conceptual maps. We’re noticing a difference there, and we’re asking that those entities make sure the plumes are defined accurately.’” 

The Dayton Daily News reports that the Ohio Department of Health and county officials have notified 180 homeowners they should test their private wells for PFAS after the toxic compounds were found in local drinking water. Ismail Turay, Jr. reports that the extent and source of the pollution is unknown. In a separate story, Turay reports that while the state will cover the cost for some of the private well tests, it’s not clear if the state will also pay for treatment if well owners find PFAS.  

In East St. Louis, residents want to know if the Veolia Environmental Services incinerator will burn aqueous film forming foams that contain PFAS. Eric Schmid of St. Louis Public Radio reports: The Veolia incinerator is listed as one of eight sites authorized by the U.S. Department of Defense to dispose of the substance, according to a lawsuit filed in February. The United Congregations of Metro East, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations are suing the Department of Defense to block the disposal pending an environmental review. A study released earlier this year indicated that incineration, even at high temperatures, doesn’t break down PFAS but instead redistributes the persistent compounds and spreads them into surrounding areas. 

Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill prohibiting aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) that contain PFAS from being burned at a hazardous waste incinerator in the City of Cohoes. According to a story in the Troy Record: “The hazardous waste incinerator is located near a public housing complex in the city, along with being in a DEC designated environmental justice zone. Norlite signed a five-year contract with the United States Department of Defense to incinerate AFFF. In 2018 and 2019, Norlite burned two million pounds of AFFF in its Cohoes facility.” 

A recent story in Consumer Reports reveals not only how companies might downplay or obscure how chemicals harm workers—but also how replacement compounds might be just as problematic as PFAS. 

In New Jersey, Solvay Specialty Polymers has been manufacturing compounds used in place of perfluorononanoic acid or PFNA, a type of PFAS.  State regulators have been casting a wary eye at the company as the “substitute PFAS”—chloroperfluoropolyether carboxylates, or ClPFPECAs—have been found in nearby soils and waters. Recently, the state sued the company, alleging that the chemicals have polluted water for more than 20 years, and speculating that the replacements might be even more dangerous than PFNA. 

According to Consumer Reports, the company has known for at least 15 years that the chemicals can harm workers.  

In his story, Ryan Felton explains that earlier this year, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for toxicology reports Solvay had filed with the agency about ClPFPECAs. In response, the EPA gave him nine studies dating from 1998 through 2019. 

From the story: 

In an October 1998 acute toxicity experiment, rats were given varying amounts of one ClPFPECA and observed for 14 days. Two Solvay officials, whose names were redacted, wrote in the study’s conclusion that the ClPFPECA compound “induced delayed toxicity (liver and intestine were mainly involved) in animals given the higher doses.” 

Liver issues were identified again in 2005, when Solvay launched a separate four-week study on a different ClPFPECA, choosing again to administer the compound orally “as it is a possible exposure of the test item to man.” Lab rats were given three different doses of the compound daily, and found signs of toxic effects at the two higher levels.  

“The findings in the liver, observed at all the doses, were a clear indication of a toxic effect of the test item to this organ,” the study said. The highest doses were also linked to decreased size of the thymus gland.  

In 2011, Solvay notified the EPA about the study, which found liver issues occurred at all three levels administered. The study “should have raised major red flags at EPA,” says the [Environmental Working Group’s David] Andrews, citing the bioaccumulation and “lack of an identified dose level that did not cause harm.” 

Lastly, the Williams Lake Tribune in Canada looks at “the good, bad and ugly of forever chemicals.” Compared with more than 700 possibly contaminated military bases in the United States, the Canadian Department of Defense says there are 26 military properties in Canada with confirmed or suspected PFAS contamination. And a 2018 study showed that between 152 and 420 airports in Canada might have polluted local waters with PFAS 

If you’ve been affected by PFAS contamination in your community here in New Mexico, call our tip line at (505) 433-7242. To read more coverage of PFAS in New Mexico visit “Groundwater War: New Mexico’s Toxic Threat,” which includes a timeline of events and studies on PFAS.