DEP to propose limits on PFAS-family chemicals that it says balance cost and public health

Environmental group says proposed levels won’t do enough to protect public health

  • Jon Hurdle

An advisory panel to the Department of Environmental Protection meets this week to consider a plan to set Pennsylvania’s first independent health limits on two kinds of “forever chemicals” in drinking water amid criticism from environmentalists that the proposed rules wouldn’t do enough to protect public health.

The board of the Public Water System Technical Assistance Center, the main advisory body for the DEP’s safe drinking water program, will decide on July 29 whether to accept a DEP recommendation to set maximum contaminant limits on the chemicals, which are part of the PFAS family that is linked with an array of serious illnesses including some cancers, thyroid conditions, ulcerative colitis, and elevated cholesterol.

DEP is proposing that the state set limits of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 18 ppt for PFOS – two of the most commonly found PFAS chemicals. The limits are similar to those of other states that have already begun to regulate the chemicals. But they are less strict than levels recommended in June by scientists at Drexel University which was contracted by the DEP to provide the scientific basis for the proposed MCLs. And they are even further above limits urged by Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group that is a longtime advocate for strict PFAS limits in drinking water.

In a presentation prepared for Thursday’s meeting, DEP explains its recommendations in a cost-benefit analysis showing that water utilities would be faced with much higher costs for installing technology to meet the Drexel standards than they would if the limits were eased to the levels now being proposed.

For PFOA, complying with the Drexel proposal would cost a utility $153 million, compared with $85 million for the agency’s level, according to the presentation by Lisa Daniels, director of the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water.

Compared with a looser, and non-enforceable, guideline of 70 ppt set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – the standard currently followed by Pennsylvania in the absence of its own regulations — the costs of complying with the Drexel standard would go up by 526 percent, whereas they would rise by a less-daunting 246 percent if Pennsylvania adopts the DEP’s recommended level, Daniels will say.

For PFOS, the costs of keeping it below the agency’s proposed limit would be almost double what it costs now to comply with the EPA level, rising to a 101 percent increase if the recommended Drexel limit was adopted.

Daniels will argue that the agency’s limits would increase public health protection by 90 percent for PFOA and 93 percent for PFOS compared with the federal guideline; represent a balance between health and cost; would be technically feasible; and are similar to six other states that have recently set their own limits.

Daniels will also tell the panel that DEP is proposing not to set MCLs for five other PFAS chemicals – among thousands in the class – because of incomplete data.

The agency said it intends to present its proposed PFAS rule to the Environmental Quality Board by the end of this year.

Some advocates for stricter PFAS regulation argue that the class as a whole should be regulated because industry produces so-called replacement chemicals as substitutes for those that are increasingly subject to regulation, potentially forcing regulators into a game of “whack a mole” as the new chemicals are developed. Little is known about the new compounds, but some scientists say they may be just as toxic as the chemicals they are designed to replace.

DRN, which has urged DEP to set a PFOA standard of no more than 6 ppt, blasted the department’s plan, saying it would not adequately protect public health, and would fail to meet the DEP’s obligations under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

“PADEP should not be dumbing down the required regulatory protection necessary because of economics – public health is the ultimate priority,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director for the nonprofit.

Despite the projected increase in utility costs, setting the tougher standards would in fact result in lower costs than having to treat illness caused by high levels of PFAS in drinking water, she argued.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network sued DEP in 2019 in an attempt to force it to set a health-protective standard for PFAS in drinking water. That was two years after the group filed a petition with the Environmental Quality Board – which adopts DEP’s proposed regulations – advocating a health limit of between 1 and 6 ppt for PFOA, far lower than the levels now being proposed.

She said DRN shared with the agency how its counterpart in New Jersey performed its own economic analysis of the effects of PFAS regulation, which resulted in that state following the recommendations of its Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists and water company executives whose role in the regulatory process is analagous to Drexel’s.

Since 2018, New Jersey has set standards that match the DEP’s proposed level for PFOA but are lower than its planned PFOS level, and has established itself as a national leader in setting health-protective PFAS rules.

In 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf set up a PFAS Action Team to investigate the presence of PFAS in the Commonwealth’s water, and recommend ways of treating it, rather than waiting for any national standard to be set.

In June, the team released complete results of its statewide sampling, which tested for 18 types of PFAS at more than 400 sites. It found eight of the chemicals including PFOA and PFOS but only two locations showed those two chemicals at above the EPA’s “Health Advisory Limit.”

Amid growing national concern about the PFAS threat to public health, Pennsylvania is the latest state to begin setting its own standards for the man-made chemicals, which have been used since the 1940s in consumer products including textiles, nonstick cookware and food packaging.

Some major PFAS manufacturers agreed in the mid-2000s to phase out the chemicals, but they persist in water and soil because they don’t break down in the environment, and, scientists say, accumulate in the bloodstream of almost every American, earning them the label of “forever chemicals.”

The contamination has also come from military bases, which for decades have used firefighting foam containing the chemicals, tainting ground water on and around hundreds of military sites nationwide.

For DEP, this week’s meeting is the latest step toward setting standards that are designed to protect public health, even though the Biden administration has begun the process of setting national standards for the two chemicals, said Jamar Thrasher, a spokesman for the DEP.

“DEP feels it is important to continue moving forward with the process to establish PFOA and PFOS MCLs for the Commonwealth to ensure timely and robust protection of the public health of Pennsylvanians,” he said.

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