DEP accused of ‘foot-dragging’ on 2-year-old request to regulate PFAS chemical

Environmental group asks appeals court to order DEP to set health standard

  • Jon Hurdle

An environmental group asked a Pennsylvania appeals court on Thursday to order the Department of Environmental Protection to complete its review of a petition to set a health limit for a toxic PFAS chemical.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network said DEP failed to deliver a required report on its request for the agency to set a maximum contaminant limit on PFOA, part of the PFAS family of chemicals.

Even though the state’s Environmental Quality Board unanimously accepted DRN’s proposal two years ago that the state adopt a safe drinking water limit of 1-6 parts per trillion for the chemical, the DEP has still not delivered a report even though it is required to do so within 60 days under state law, DRN said. It also said DEP missed its own subsequent deadline of June 2018 to deliver the report.

DRN accused DEP of “indefensible foot-dragging” and asked the Commonwealth Court to instruct DEP to produce the report, and set a maximum contaminant limit (MCL) for the chemical.

DEP will soon begin sampling for PFOA and related chemicals in a statewide program that will lead eventually to it setting an MCL for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf follows a federal health advisory for the two chemicals, but in February said it would begin the process of setting its own enforceable limit after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to commit to setting national standards.

Even though DEP’s process is underway, it is not acting fast enough for DRN, and the petition for review is designed to hasten the day that an MCL is set, said Maya van Rossum, who heads the group. She denied there would be any duplication of effort if the court orders DEP to complete its review.

“We feel mandating compliance with the law as the law is written is more likely to result in faster protective action,” she said.

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokeswoman for DEP, rejected DRN’s “foot-dragging” claim as “utterly false” in view of DEP’s commitment to setting a health limit for the chemical. She also dismissed DRN’s claim that the agency didn’t act on the petition, saying that officials continue to review it.

“In 2018 DEP presented its findings, which noted that DEP needs more time to review the petition and that DEP needed a toxicologist to be able to determine the appropriateness of an MCL and if appropriate, what the level should be,” she wrote in an email. “DEP is still in the process of getting that outside expertise.”

Rementer said DEP is “absolutely committed” to setting an MCL and that it is a “top priority” of the Wolf administration.

It’s “not a simple task,” she said, and is expected to begin after the sampling process, which is due to start later this month and take about a year. In total, it typically takes about two years before an enforceable rule is put in place, and DEP is working as fast as possible on this case because of its “significant health implications,” she said.

In its complaint to the Commonwealth Court, DRN said DEP could have used a PFOA standard recommended by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists that advises that state’s environmental officials. The New Jersey DEP is now putting in place the institute’s  recommendation for a PFOA limit of 14 ppt, slightly looser than that sought by DRN.

DEP could also have relied on research from DRN’s own consultants, but failed to do either, and “has made no meaningful progress in establishing an MCL in two years’ time,” DRN said.

It is asking the court to rule that DEP violated the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act and the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state constitution.

PFOA and related chemicals, once used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, have been linked to cancer and other health conditions including low birth weights, high cholesterol, and immune-system problems. Even though their use has been discontinued by U.S. manufacturers, they don’t break down in the environment, and so are being subject to strict state regulations as more becomes known about their threat to public health.

At the federal level, the chemicals would be curbed by several recent bills introduced by lawmakers, including some from Pennsylvania.

Up Next

Everything you need to know about the cicadas that will soon swarm southwest Pa.