forever ever

Biden's surprisingly simple plan to clean up "forever chemicals" could actually work

The federal government may be on the cusp of admitting chemicals that kill us are "hazardous."

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For years, we have known that PFAS have proliferated throughout our environment — and that they are likely killing us. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are human-made chemicals found in myriad places, including cleaning products, cooking utensils, soil, food, and drinking water. They do not break down in the environment, or in the body — a virtue of their design. Long-valued for their nonstick, waterproof, or fire-resistant properties, PFAS have also been linked to numerous health problems, like immune and reproductive problems, and even cancer.

And yet PFAS have escaped meaningful federal regulation — until now.

President-elect Biden pledged in an environmental plan to designate PFAS as hazardous within the Superfund cleanup law, and to set limits for these chemicals in the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Superfund law, or CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), deals with liability for and remediation of hazardous chemicals.

A Superfund designation, long sought by environmentalists, would trigger increased government regulation of PFAS, and empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to sue polluters.

The PFAS Superfund plan has three key components:

  • Labelling PFAS as “hazardous substances” for the first time.
  • Requiring groups to report the release of the chemicals into the environment above a certain level.
  • Allowing EPA to sue transgressors and make them financially liable for clean up and reparations.
Take-out containers have been found to contain PFAS — which could end up in food.Shutterstock

But will it work? According to experts at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, and other PFAS regulation champions, people have tried to put the cap on PFAS before — and failed.

Inverse sat in on a Facebook Live event Tuesday featuring a panel of experts who discussed Biden’s plans. On the panel was PFAS regulation champion Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan and PFAS Attorney Rob Bilott. EWG Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Scott Faber and attorney Melanie Benesh also joined the conversation.

Making the jump — The EPA is tasked with cleaning up about 800 hazardous substances under Superfund, but Benesh explained Wednesday that its resources for doing so have gotten smaller over time. Moving PFAS from the “pollutants or contaminants” into the “hazardous substances” category will put “more impetus on the EPA to clean up sites contaminated by PFAS,” she said.

The hazardous designation will lead to new reporting requirements for any releases of the chemical over a certain threshold, according to Benesh. When this threshold is exceeded, an investigation is required along with a potential cleanup. And when a chemical is labelled hazardous, the EPA can sue polluters to recover cleanup costs.

Attorney Rob Bilott made his name taking on PFAS maker DuPont in court.Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

Rob Bilott led historic litigation against DuPont, one of the main companies that created PFAS, resulting in a $671 million settlement on behalf of more than 3,500 plaintiffs in 2017. He said of liability: “That’s really the key — we want to make sure that when we move forward here, the [responsible parties] are the ones picking up the tab — not the taxpayers, not the states, not the water providers, not the firemen, or the firehouses.”

Dingell agreed. She should know. Dingell has spearheaded state and national PFAS legislation in the past, including the federal PFAS Action Act of 2019. It seeks to list PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous” under Superfund

Dingell’s PFAS Action Act passed the House in 2020. She said she intends to reintroduce it, and it will be “a top priority in the new Congress.”

Drinking problem — One of the biggest downstream effects of PFAS is contaminated drinking water. While these chemicals are especially prevalent in the groundwater around military facilities, where they are used in firefighting foams, EWG recently reported PFAS water contamination is much more widespread than previously thought.

“We need a strong national protection standard for drinking water,” Dingell said. This would be provided in Biden’s plan within the Safe Drinking Water Act.

And Biden intends to prioritize PFAS “substitutes through procurement,” a move EWG’s Benesh described as, “using the government’s purchasing power to stop buying things with PFAS in them.”

Biden’s proposal also mentions speeding up PFAS toxicity research, although this will require additional resources.

Bilott pointed out that films like Dark Waters, which portrays his fight with DuPont, are exemplary of an encouraging wave of growing public education and engagement around PFAS. Dingell and Benesh also mentioned public awareness as a key factor in achieving new PFA regulations.

But just the sheer fact Biden admits PFAS are a serious problem is encouraging, the experts say.

President-elect Biden “actually saying in his environmental justice plan that PFAS is a priority [is really] a tremendous accomplishment for all of the public advocates and all of the communities who have really done so much work to raise the profile of this issue,” Benesh said.

If Biden’s plans do come through, it will mark a sea-change in the United States’ government approach to environmental regulation of dangerous materials. This plan isn’t just rebuilding the Obama years’ environmental regulations — it is building on them.

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