February 14, 2019

EPA Releases Comprehensive Action Plan for Regulating PFAS Chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its long-awaited action plan to address the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are chemicals that were once used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products because of their resistance to heat, water and oil. Products that historically contained these chemicals include carpeting, apparel, upholstery, food paper wrappings, firefighting foams and metal plating. PFAS are present at many locations and the action plan may have widespread regulatory impacts. 

The action plan includes establishing Maximum Contaminant Levels, including PFAS chemicals as listed hazardous substances, additional drinking water monitoring, establishing groundwater cleanup recommendations and developing a risk communication toolbox.

“The PFAS Action Plan is the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA,” said Andrew Wheeler, EPA acting administrator, in a press conference announcing the action plan held Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Wheeler also noted that “the action plan commits EPA to take important steps that will improve how we research, monitor, detect and address PFAS.”

Key elements of the action plan include:

  • The EPA intends to “evaluate a need for” Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). An MCL establishes the legal limit on the amount of a substance allowed in public water systems pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). While no specific timeline was provided for issuing an MCL for PFOA and PFOS, the EPA states in the action plan that it wants to “propose a national drinking water regulatory determination” for these PFAS chemicals in 2019. The EPA further indicated it would continue gathering and evaluating information to determine if regulation is appropriate for a broader class of PFAS.
  • The EPA acknowledged that it has already initiated a regulatory process for listing PFOA and PFOS as listed hazardous substances pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and many state cleanup programs.
  • The EPA will develop groundwater cleanup recommendations for PFOA and PFOS at contaminated sites. These recommendations will assist the EPA and state agencies in making site-specific cleanup decisions. 
  • The EPA will continue its current PFAS-related enforcement activities at eight current sites based on its already-issued health advisory level (HAL) of 70 ppt. The EPA is also currently providing technical assistance to states at dozens of other sites.
  • The EPA will conduct research and develop new analytical methods in four areas: human health impacts, source determination/fate and transport, effectiveness and costs associated with treatment and remediation strategies, and methods for supporting stakeholders.
  • The EPA will conduct expanded nationwide drinking water monitoring for PFAS in U.S. drinking water systems as part of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) monitoring program that takes place every five years. This monitoring is expected to take place in 2020. 
  • By 2022, the EPA intends to incorporate PFAS data into the EPA’s atmospheric models to help it evaluate the atmospheric fate and transport of PFAS. 
  • The EPA will also develop a PFAS risk communication toolbox in order to explain PFAS risk to the public in simple terms.

The EPA continued to uphold the 70 ppt established in its previous non-binding health advisory as “a safe level for drinking water.” Wheeler continues to urge Congress and affected users to allow the EPA more time to consider what might be the appropriate maximum contaminant level while it continues its multifaceted approach to addressing these chemicals. 

In announcing his intent to hold a hearing on the action plan this spring, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, said, “The Agency must be willing to take decisive action where it is warranted. Industry and the Department of Defense must also play a constructive role.” 

The EPA has been encouraged by legislators to move more quickly in regulating PFAS, and today’s announcement has not muted some calls for more congressional action despite these broadened efforts by the EPA. 

The text of the action plan and a detailed fact sheet were also made public by the EPA. Companies involved in the historic manufacturing, use or disposal of PFAS compounds should track these regulatory developments carefully.

The EPA will provide multiple opportunities for oral and written comments from stakeholders, including from regulated companies, as it undertakes its PFAS action plan.

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