Some states and the Environmental Protection Agency are moving away from conducting site cleanups under the federal superfund program, finding state options more efficient than federal programs.
State programs are tougher on poly- and perfluorinated compounds than the EPA’s core remediation program, which doesn’t address them specifically. At sites contaminated with the chemicals, Vermont, for example, has found that negotiating with companies has been more efficient than pursuing enforcement.
Those compounds, part of a family of chemicals also known as PFAS, have been used to manufacture nonstick and stain-resistant coatings in clothing, fast food wrappers, carpets, and other consumer products by companies such as Arkema, DuPont, 3M, Chemours, and BASF Corp.
“We’ve made a conscious decision to move ahead under state authority because it’s stronger than the federal options,” Elle O’Casey, spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, told Bloomberg Environment.
In a list Bloomberg Environment requested from the agency, the EPA has identified at least 17 non-federal contaminated sites with PFAS. The list also includes 32 federal facilities where PFAS contamination may impact drinking water.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, most people in the U.S. have at least one type of PFAS in their blood, such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
But when concentrations are elevated, the chemicals may pose developmental risks to fetuses, and for adults, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, immune system effects, thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol.
The EPA listed three superfund sites in Vermont with PFAS contamination, including one in Bennington, where a PFAS chemical was found in residential drinking water wells.
Vermont has developed policies for negotiating with companies responsible for cleanup at PFAS-contaminated sites.
“We were able to reach a settlement for one portion of the affected areas, and we’re hoping to reach a settlement for the eastern portion as well,” O’Casey told Bloomberg Environment.
The settlement option allows the state to resolve the issues with the responsible party more quickly than pursuing an enforcement option, O’Casey said.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s superfund task force, formed last year, wants to provide the agency’s regional staff with enforcement alternatives outside of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
Regional staff would guide states and local governments to those CERCLA alternatives as they deal with emerging contaminants like PFAS, according to a quarterly report the task force released Feb. 2.
Three superfund sites on the EPA’s list are in New York, where the state has declared PFOA and PFOS hazardous substances.
That declaration, made in 2016, allowed the state to pursue cleanup at contaminated sites using state-level superfund resources instead of asking the EPA to declare them federal superfund sites.
New York made the declaration “in the absence of federal leadership” on the chemicals, Sean Mahar, spokesman for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, told Bloomberg Environment.
At some superfund sites, the discovery of PFAS has added a new challenge to the remediation process for states and the EPA.
The American Cyanamid Superfund Site in Bridgewater Township, N.J., is on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s list of sites that need “immediate, intense action” on the EPA’s part. The site’s cleanup is funded by Wyeth Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of Pfizer.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection asked Wyeth to start testing the superfund site’s groundwater for PFOA and PFOS, and the company did so in early 2017. The tests found PFOA and other PFAS chemicals, according to Lawrence Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey DEP.
Because the site still is under investigation and the groundwater isn't a drinking water source, the EPA and New Jersey have yet to decide whether it is necessary to clean up the PFAS contamination, David Kluesner, spokesman for EPA Region 2, told Bloomberg Environment.
Pruitt has made remediation decisions at three of the 21 sites on the “immediate, intense action” list since December. It is unclear when the administrator may release a decision on New Jersey’s American Cyanamid site.
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