On March 8, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a virtual information session for EPA Region 8 (Mountain and Plains) regarding its roadmap for addressing PFAS — a chemical pollutant often found in water sources.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, are synthetic chemicals commonly manufactured and used for their water and oil-resistant properties. Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used in nonstick cookware, fast food packaging, and water-repellent clothing. While those uses may be frightening to the average consumer, the greatest sources of PFAS pollution are industrial — mining, fuel extraction and airports (due to PFAS-containing firefighting foam) among them. PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” due to their extreme resistance to breaking down in the environment.
Because of their widespread use and persistence, PFAS are found all over the world and low-level human exposure is commonplace across the United States. While research is slim, various studies have shown that PFAS exposure may be linked to harmful health effects such as higher cancer risk as well as changes in immune response. Most research has been conducted for the two most common types of PFAS,PFOA and PFOS, and there exist thousands of different PFAS.
Due to rising concerns, EPA Administrator Michael Regan created the PFAS Council in April of 2021, swiftly after being sworn in. The PFAS Council then released its PFAS Strategic Roadmap in October of 2021. The Roadmap both sets priorities by which PFAS will be addressed as well as a timeline by which specific actions will be taken. Due to recommendations by the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, one of the main priorities of the roadmap is engaging directly with communities. As such, the EPA has been hosting listening sessions across all 10 of its regions via Zoom concerning the status of its operations.
Region 8 encompasses Colorado, North and South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and 28 Tribal Nations, and is at specific risk for PFAS due to the region’s widespread mining and fossil fuel extraction operations.
Colorado in particular may have the most PFAS sites of any state in the country. The EPA currently requires industries to report PFAS use only over a specific threshold, producing or importing 10 tons of PFAS-containing material per year, which limits information about their spread. However, the EPA has stated that of the 120,000 sites in the United States which “may be using PFAS” as part of their industry, 21,000 of them are in Colorado, about 16% of the nation’s total potential sites. Of the sites in Colorado, about 18,000 — 86% of CO’s total — are associated with the oil and gas industry.
Additionally, according to EPA Region 8 Administrator KC Becker, “firefighting foams containing PFAS have impacted public water systems and private wells across Region 8. This led to additional treatment or, in some instances, wells being removed from people’s homes.”
Thankfully, according to Deborah Nagle, director of Science and Technology within the EPA’s Office of Water, “addressing PFAS is a top priority for the EPA,” and in their listening session, the EPA announced a slew of achievements since the Strategic Roadmap’s release.
In October 2021, the EPA announced its National PFAS Testing Strategy, which categorized PFAS to better direct research and policy solutions. In December of the same year, EPA finalized the fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, which will require testing for 29 PFAS in drinking water nationwide from 2023 to 2025. Throughout last year, EPA researchers published over 30 papers on PFAS in various scientific journals, working on methods to detect and measure PFAS in the environment.
Most significantly, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, provided more than $50 billion to the EPA, of which $10 billion was designated specifically for “dedicated funding for communities impacted by emerging contaminants in water, including PFAS” according to the Roadmap’s first year progress report. Of this funding, $5 billion is to be diverted to Small or Disadvantaged Communities Drinking-Water grants, $4 billion to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund with 25% reserved for “disadvantaged communities or public water systems that server fewer than 25,000 people,” and the last $1 billion to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
Looking forward, the EPA has announced a proposed National Drinking Water Standard which limits PFOA and PFOS. This is currently in review before its release for public comment. Additionally, the EPA has proposed to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under CERCLA — better known as Superfund. This designation will expedite PFAS treatment efforts in critically affected communities.
While EPA in its listening session did not thoroughly elaborate on how these nationwide changes would affect Region 8 specifically, Administrator Becker announced that this summer, EPA will begin sampling wastewater on selected sites located on tribal reservations.
In general, the EPA has focused its first year on developing an adequate body of understanding on this new, highly-persistent pollutant before taking significant action on remediating its presence in the environment.