EPA Announces Crackdown on PFAS in Water Systems

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April 15, 2024

by Brian Eckert

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a national regulation limiting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) levels in drinking water that is being hailed as “historic” and “life-changing.”

A mandate handed down last week will require public water utilities to test for six types of PFAS, which the EPA says will dramatically improve water safety for around 100 million Americans, preventing thousands of deaths and illnesses. The news comes as the latest EPA data shows more than 70 million Americans get their water from a system containing toxic “forever chemicals.”

EPA is making $1 billion in new funding available to assist communities affected by PFAS contamination, but the total cost to clean and protect the nation’s drinking water systems could be hundreds of times higher. Many communities are filing PFAS lawsuits against chemical companies to fund cleanup efforts, and several producers have already agreed to huge settlements.

First-Ever “Forever Chemical” Drinking Water Standard

The EPA announced in an April 10 press release that, for the first time, it has set legally enforceable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFAS chemicals in public drinking water systems.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in the announcement that, “Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long. Our PFAS Strategic Roadmap marshals the full breadth of EPA’s authority and resources to protect people from these harmful forever chemicals.”

This reflects the latest science showing that there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers.

PFAS are known as known as “forever chemicals” due to their near-indestructibility and tendency to accumulate in the environment. It takes PFAS eons to decompose and once ingested they can remain in the body for years. Exposure to PFAS is linked to numerous health issues, including cancer and developmental and reproductive effects.

“This reflects the latest science showing that there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers,” EPA stated in the release.

EPA calculates that the new PFAS standards for water systems will result in thousands of fewer birthweight-related infant deaths, kidney cancer deaths, bladder cancer deaths, and deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Rule Imposes Requirements and Costs on Public Water Systems

The EPA’s Regan called the rule “comprehensive and life-changing” and vowed it will “improve the health and vitality of so many communities across the country.”

But under the ruling, thousands of communities will now have to implement solutions to reduce PFAS in their public water systems to near-zero levels—and bear the associated costs.

EPA estimates that between 6 percent and 10 percent of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to the rule will be forced to take action to comply with the new standards. They’ll have three years to complete initial PFAS monitoring and must publicly release measured levels of the chemicals. If PFAS levels exceed EPA limits, systems will then have five years to reduce PFAS to within the acceptable range.

To help communities comply, the Biden Administration is releasing $1 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The law provides an additional $12 billion for general drinking water improvements, some of which could be used to address PFAS contamination.

For decades, the American people have been exposed to the family of incredibly toxic ‘forever chemicals’ known as PFAS with no protection from their government. Those chemicals now contaminate virtually all Americans from birth.

Erik D. Olson of the National Resources Defense Council told CBS News that it will cost water utility systems impacted by the standard around $1.5 billion to treat their water.

The cost to clean PFAS from drinking water nationwide could be as high as $400 billion. Just one community—Orange County, California—puts its PFAS cleanup costs at over $1 billion.

An investigation from non-profit ChemSec found that the global societal costs of PFAS chemicals, including remediation and health care, amount to €16 trillion per year ($17 trillion USD).

Data released in February by the EPA as part of its ongoing 5-year national review of water systems found that over 70 million Americans live in homes with PFAS-polluted water. The data shows 5,021 locations in 50 states, Washington, D.C., and four territories with known PFAS contamination, reports the Environmental Working Group.

U.S. cities with some of the highest levels of PFAS in drinking water include Louisville, KY, New Orleans, LA, Philadelphia, PA, Charleston, SC, Miami, FL, Wilmington, NC, and Decatur, AL. The most contaminated areas tend to be urban, something that EWG researchers attribute to higher concentrations of industry, waste sites, and other known PFAS sources.

Lawsuits Another Way to Pay for PFAS Cleanup

PFAS have been used since the 1940s for a wide range of industrial purposes, such as firefighting foam and consumer products like nonstick cookware and stain resistant clothing.

A dozen chemical companies are responsible for the majority of PFAS production worldwide. They include Arkema, Chemours, 3M, Merck, Bayer, BSAF, and Honeywell.

Notably absent from the new EPA regulations is any measure to hold polluters financially accountable for PFAS contamination. However, there have been several large settlements against chemical companies in recent years involving PFAS water pollution.

Last year, in what’s been described as “the largest drinking water settlement in American history,” 3M agreed to pay $12.5 billion to help fund PFAS remediation. Another settlement in June with PFAS makers DuPont, Chemours, and Corteva resolved claims with a class of public water systems for $1.185 billion.

The billions paid so far by chemical companies for PFAS cleanup could be just the tip of a massive litigation iceberg. Thousands of claims remain unsettled, and new lawsuits continue to be filed. Some believe that, when PFAS litigation is fully resolved, it could surpass the $200+ billion Big Tobacco settlements.

How Milberg is Addressing PFAS in Water Systems

Milberg’s environmental attorneys are assessing potential claims from water/wastewater utilities that have had to pay for PFAS treatment and remediation.

We have been pursuing PFAS consumer product litigation for years and are also currently engaged in PFAS-based firefighting foams lawsuits on behalf of municipalities, public and private water districts, state attorneys general, and individual personal injury plaintiffs.