The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held on Tuesday, May 22 a summit on harmful chemicals. The one and a half day event was organized to determine how the agency would address the presence of a potentially harmful group of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl chemicals or PFAS in the water that millions of Americans drink. However, environmental advocates doubt the seriousness of the current administration in dealing with the nationwide problem.
As of January this year, a White House official privately suggested to the EPA staff and representatives of the chemical industry that the release of a study by the Health and Human Services Department on the widely used PFAS might be a “public relations nightmare.”
According to emails, the unreleased study will show that the chemicals put human health at risk even at far lower levels than what the EPA had set to be safe.
For the summit, EPA was host at the agency headquarters to tribal, state, industry and nonprofit officials for its “first-of-its-kind” gathering of over 200 PFAS stakeholders.
Pruitt called the summit a “historic day” and a priority that the country has to focus on. He noted that while PFAS have made American lives easier, there are concerns about their prevalence in the water that millions of Americans drink. He also said that summit is not just to raise awareness of the PFAS but also to “take action.”
Discussions among the summit attendees about the water contamination problem started after the invited reported who covered Pruitt’s speech left.
According to Natural Resources Defense Council senior director Erik Olson, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health, Maureen Sullivan, mentioned “known or suspected releases” of two PFASs in the 401 active or inactive sites that her department administers.
Linda Birnbaum, head of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences suggested that EPA should develop the capability to detect all the 3,500 PFASs that are for commercial use in the United States. The EPA can only detect 14 PFAS now.
Olson said that EPA is “only detecting the tip of the iceberg.”
Pruitt told reporters the following actions that EPA would take:
- Evaluate the need for a “maximum contaminant level” of chemicals in drinking water based on the Safe Drinking Water Act.
- Develop recommendations for groundwater cleanup.
- Establish liability issues about chemicals based on the laws governing the Superfund program.
Only part of the summit that ended on Wednesday noon was open to the public and the press. The limited coverage sparked disapproval from environmental watchdogs. In addition, reporters from three media outlets, CNN, E & E News and Associated Press and CNN were not allowed to enter the venue. The Associated Press wrote that its reporter was ‘forcibly” pushed by security guards from the EPA headquarters.
An EPA spokesperson said that there was not enough space in the room where Pruitt delivered his speech. However, reporters who were invited to attend said there were several vacant seats in the venue. After Pruitt’s speech, the EPA welcomed all media for the rest of the summit.
A senior scientist, Dave Andrews, at the Environmental Working Group said that the summit could be Scott Pruitt’s chance to score positive points with the public if he would instruct federal agencies and labs to release all data that affect public health.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and the other Democrats in the Energy and Commerce Committee sent Pruitt a letter to express their deep distrust of his actions on PFAS. They wrote that Pruitt’s actions “appear to indicate that politics, and potentially industry interests, are being placed before public health.”
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gave his testimony to the Senate Appropriations sub-committee earlier this month. One topic of concern for both the Democrats and Republicans was the delayed release of the study on PFAS. It was a special concern for Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, where PFAS have been released from a DuPont plant to the Ohio River.
He “was not aware that there had been some holding back of the report,” Pruitt informed the committee.
On May 21, Pruitt wrote to Democratic Rep. Daniel Kildee of Michigan that EPA “does not have the authority to release this study.” Rep. Kildee’s district includes Flint which is known for the high levels of lead contamination of its drinking water and several sites of PFAS contamination. Pruitt assured Rep. Kildee in the letter that he shares “your concern for communities’ nationwide that continue to deal with the pollution issue.
But Kildee was not satisfied with Pruitt’s letter. He said that the EPA under Scott Pruitt made “lots of talk but little action.”
The public probably don’t realize the extent of contamination of the nation’s drinking water by nonstick chemicals. According to the analysis published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), PFAS may have contaminated the drinking water of up to 110 million people living in the United States.
An American Chemistry Council (ACC) representative as well as environmental officials from Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and New Hampshire, were among the speakers during the summit.
Erik Olson, one of the speakers and director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nongovernmental group, lamented the absence of representatives from the firefighting groups or the affected communities at the summit. Olson said that it makes one wonder if the EPA is “serious about doing something.”
The EPA announced that there will be a follow up “community engagement event” to the summit because it “quickly reached capacity.”
According to the chemical manufacturers, the available alternatives to PFAS, are not up to the important performance standards required in products such as aircraft-engine lubricants and stain-resistant clothing.