2/03/2019 — 

WASHINGTON, DC - After the Trump Administration signaled it will fail to impose enforceable federal drinking water limits on two toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other health and environmental threats, a bipartisan group of 20 U.S. Senators, including U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action.

In an effort to protect public health, the Senators sent a letter urging the federal agency to develop federal drinking water standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) – substances in a group known as PFAS -- as part of EPA’s national management plan for this class of chemicals. 

Elevated levels of PFAS, a class of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured since the 1950s and are often found in non-stick, waterproof, and stain resistant products, may be contaminating drinking water in 33 states nationwide, including Rhode Island.  PFAS have been linked to a variety of cancers, weakened immunity, and other serious health problems.

The letter also requests that the EPA provide briefings on the agency’s efforts on this issue, as well as regular updates on the progress of those efforts. 

The Senators’ letter comes in response to a report that the EPA’s Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler has signed off on a national management plan that would leave PFAS unregulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Senators wrote: “As you are aware, PFAS chemicals have emerged as a widespread contaminant in drinking water sources in several communities across the nation.  While the risks associated with PFAS exposure are still being uncovered, studies have linked these unregulated emerging contaminants to a number of adverse health effects.  On May 19, 2016, the EPA established lifetime health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS.  These health advisories, however, are non-enforceable and deprive states of much-needed federal guidance on how to determine and implement effective drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS chemicals.”

The letter goes on to explain that in the absence of federal standards, states have been forced to establish their own drinking water regulations for PFAS.  The lack of coordination among states has led to a patchwork of conflicting drinking water standards and guidelines across nine states, which have varying maximum contaminant levels and have raised concerns in impacted communities that are questioning whether their regulations are sufficient.

In their letter, the Senators continued: “Without enforceable drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, it is doubtful that a national management strategy will sufficiently confront the challenges PFAS chemicals pose to states and affected communities. This decision would also fail to consider ongoing interagency efforts to determine the human health implications of contamination from PFAS, including the nationwide study being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).”

Senator Reed, a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the EPA’s budget, stated: “There is a significant threat here, millions of people could be drinking contaminated water.  But instead of protecting the American public and safeguarding our drinking water, the Trump Administration continues to weaken environmental health protections and side with polluters.  Congress needs to take bipartisan action to preserve and protect clean, safe drinking water and I hope more Republicans will join this effort.”

In 2017, Reed helped secure a five-year, $8 million federal grant to enable the University of Rhode Island (URI) to establish a research center on chemical pollutants in drinking water to test for PFAS in private wells and better understand how the chemicals contaminate groundwater, the food chain and, ultimately, humans.  Reed, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, helped include a provision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring a study on the health implications of PFAS in drinking water, as well as a $10 million authorization in the Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA to study the potential health impact of emerging contaminants in water supplies.

In addition to Reed, the bipartisan letter was also signed by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tom Udall (D-NM), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Thom Tillis (R-NC).

Full text of the letter follows:

February 1, 2019

The Honorable Andrew Wheeler
Acting Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460

Dear Acting Administrator Wheeler:

We write to you regarding recent media reports citing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not intend to establish enforceable drinking water standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as part of the agency’s national management plan for this class of chemicals. If this is accurate, EPA’s inaction would be a major setback to states and affected communities. Therefore, we urge you to develop enforceable federal drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS as well as institute immediate actions to protect the public from contamination from additional per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

As you are aware, PFAS chemicals have emerged as a widespread contaminant in drinking water sources in several communities across the nation. While the risks associated with PFAS exposure are still being uncovered, studies have linked these unregulated emerging contaminants to a number of adverse health effects. On May 19, 2016, the EPA established lifetime health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. These health advisories, however, are non-enforceable and deprive states of much-needed federal guidance on how to determine and implement effective drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS chemicals.

In the absence of federal standards, states have been forced to create their own drinking water regulations for PFAS. This uncoordinated process has led to a patchwork of conflicting drinking water standards and guidelines in nine states with widely varying maximum contaminant levels. Moreover, the varying levels of standards have caused confusion among regulated entities and affected communities who wonder if their regulations are sufficient.

Federal safe drinking water standards are critical to addressing public concerns and allow for states to focus their efforts and limited resources on implementation and compliance assurance. Without enforceable drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, it is doubtful that a national management strategy will sufficiently confront the challenges PFAS chemicals pose to states and affected communities. This decision would also fail to consider ongoing interagency efforts to determine the human health implications of contamination from PFAS, including the nationwide study being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  We urge you to ensure that EPA’s National PFAS Management Plan includes a commitment to develop federal drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act. We also request that EPA provide briefings to our offices on the agency’s efforts on this issue, as well as regular updates on the progress of those efforts.

Safe drinking water is essential to the health and well-being of every American. And while our nation’s water quality is among the highest in the world, we now face a serious challenge:  aggressively addressing the health and environmental threats connected with PFAS. We believe it is imperative that the EPA show leadership and help protect American families from these harmful materials. We thank you for your attention to this important matter and look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely,