By: Sofia Liszka
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its latest endeavor in the mission for clean drinking water. The new plan, the Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan, is a declaration of the agency’s commitment to better water quality by targeting a set of possibly carcinogenic and internally damaging chemicals. While the publication aims to detail the agency’s plans for reform, it comes with a reminder of the harsh reality that the right to clean water is far from uniform within our borders. Additionally, it’s important to acknowledge that on a larger scale, water security, regardless of quality, is far from given.
A lessened environmental presence is often termed by the government as ‘phased out’; yet, these chemicals are still absorbing into bodies nationwide. Explained scientifically, the residence time of PFAS in national water sources is long enough to enable the chemicals to stay in drinking water, and as a result, reach our bodies. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of harmful chemicals mainly derived from industry. Two chemicals in the group that the EPA has previously set exposure advisories for are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). These chemicals are found in “carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and other materials (e.g., cookware) that are resistant to water, grease or stains”. In other words, this class of chemicals has a startlingly wide distribution.
As expected, the report’s publication brought about its share of criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers, criticism that mainly lies within the projected timetable for remediation detailed in the report. According to NPR, the EPA “has begun the process of listing PFOA and PFOS…as hazardous substances under the Superfund law”. This is the first step in a long and demanding series of tasks aimed at pinpointing the sources tied to the release of these compounds nationwide. Eventually, those sources would be liable for the damage under environmental compensation laws surrounding the agency’s Superfund program.
While some maintain that the backlash is rooted in general antipathy for the EPA’s direction during the current administration, justification for the criticism can be found in both ethical and scientific perspectives. The presence of PFAS in drinking water is not new, a frustrating reality that parallels other classes of chemicals found in water supplies. In 2016, Harvard University researchers translated EPA-analyzed water samples into a map that encompasses the scope of PFAS contamination. The map shows nearly all of western Ohio in range for PFAS detection, but the map’s depiction of the chemicals’ prominence across the nation is further alarming.
In an age where timing and efficiency seem to govern alongside the decision makers, a sense of urgency is understandably valued. Environmentally, many issues are time-sensitive; after all, impacted communities will continue to consume water regardless of governmental action taken, or lack thereof. Such was the case before the EPA’s report was published.
Considering the scope of contamination at hand, it is not surprising that some states have taken remediative measures of their own to make up for the lag in federal response. Earlier this year, a Dayton-area town here in Ohio experienced its own version of a delayed response to water contamination, which only prompts further questions about the relationship between governmental oversight and the water its people consume.
Washington state’s legislature plans to introduce a variety of bills aimed at state-specific issues related to PFAS, and citizens are pursuing legal avenues. One lawsuit in the state is against a known former producer of PFAS, 3M. The lawsuit “alleges the defendants knew about the toxicity and persistence of PFAS chemicals in the 1970s and did not disclose that information to the public”. Last year in Minnesota, where 3M mainly operates out of, the company paid the state over $800 million to settle a similar lawsuit. Measures like these show that while the environmental agenda has been under fire federally, states are somewhat able to dictate their respective environmental paths.
The undertaking of responsibility on the part of the state is simply federalism at work within the environmental sector of government. A state is advantageous here because it can craft its own solution suited to the needs of the people and land within its jurisdiction. Federal solutions, on the other hand, often come later and and are more umbrella-like to generally meet the demands of all affected states. As the EPA’s plan rolls into action, one is inclined to be hopeful for the future of water; however, we have little choice but to drink each glass given until then.
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