Safety Reviews of Chemicals Near Water a Heavy Lift for EPA

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By David Schultz

The EPA will have a hard time meeting a congressional mandate to boost oversight of toxic chemicals stored near water supplies, several people who work in water policy told Bloomberg Environment.

This could have both public health and worker safety implications for employees of water treatment plants who might be exposed to chemicals of unknown potency or health effects if they spill near a drinking water source.

Congress tasked the Environmental Protection Agency with evaluating the safety of thousands of substances in the 2016 update to the country’s toxic chemicals law. And within that statute, Congress said the agency had to prioritize chemicals stored near “significant sources of drinking water.”

In early 2019, the EPA has to start screening 40 chemicals and identify 20 for closer scrutiny by the end of that year.

Daniel Rosenberg, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on chemical issues, said there’s no evidence the agency has developed a method for determining what a significant source of drinking water is or whether a chemical is stored near one.

“The clock is ticking,” he told Bloomberg Environment. “They need to come forward with what their process is actually going to be and then start implementing it.”

Intra-Agency Collaboration

The EPA declined a request from Bloomberg Environment to interview staffers within its Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, the main branch responsible for implementing the 2016 law (P.L. 114-182).

However, an EPA staffer told Bloomberg Environment in an email that the office is collaborating with the agency’s Office of Water to figure out how to comply with this part of the law.

That collaboration may not be as fruitful as the agency would hope.

Rita Schoeny, an environmental consultant who, until 2015, had worked in the EPA’s science and water offices for years, said the Office of Water might not have the data that the toxics branch is looking for.

The laws that govern drinking water quality are relatively agnostic toward water sourcing, she said. Instead, they mainly focus on ensuring that whatever impurities exist within those sources gets filtered out before it reaches faucets, she told Bloomberg Environment.

As a result, the EPA might not maintain data on which chemicals are stored near drinking water sources, or even of the location of drinking water sources themselves, she said.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents the manufacturers of many of these chemicals, did not respond to several inquiries from Bloomberg Environment for this story. Additionally, no responses came from the top U.S. chemical makers Bloomberg Environment contacted: DowDuPont, Honeywell, 3M and Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer.

Chemical Spills

A nightmare scenario for many water utilities is something along the lines of a spill that occurred in Charleston, W. Va., four years ago. Thousands of gallons of a coal processing chemical called MCHM leaked out of a storage tank and into the Elk River, just upstream from the intake pipe for one of the largest drinking water utilities in the state.

Water service was subsequently shut off for hundreds of thousands of residents in the Charleston area for nearly a week, partially because the health effects of exposure to MCHM were not known.

A spill like this would pose risks not only to residents drinking contaminated water but also to water utility workers at treatment plants who might be exposed.

Lee Anderson, the head of government affairs with the Utility Workers Union of America, said some larger water utilities have compiled detailed information about what chemicals are stored upstream from their plants and have also developed plans for what to do in the event of a spill.

However, he said that may not be the case at the tens of thousands of smaller utilities across the country. Workers at these smaller facilities could use some help from the EPA to determine what chemicals are stored near them and what their risks are, he said.

“It would be valuable to have third-party research,” Anderson told Bloomberg Environment. “It would just be out there for a little municipality.”

‘Six or Seven Words’

The utilities themselves also want the EPA to get on board.

Wendi Wilkes, a regulatory analyst with the trade group American Water Works Association, said the agency has its work cut out for it because the language in the 2016 chemicals law was vague; it just says the EPA must prioritize chemicals stored “near significant sources of drinking water.”

“It might only be six or seven words but it can have a really big impact on protecting source water,” Wilkes told Bloomberg Environment.

The agency will have to define what “near” means in this context, she said. It will also have to determine whether this applies only to surface water or whether groundwater, the drinking water source for nearly a third of Americans, is covered too, she said.

If groundwater is included, Wilkes said, that opens the possibility that the agency’s toxics office will have to do a full safety evaluation of perfluorinated chemicals, a class of persistent and potentially toxic substances used in firefighting foam, consumer products, and industrial applications that have contaminated groundwater across the country.

However, Wilkes said she hopes the EPA looks beyond these chemicals—which have already been identified as a threat—and finds others stored near drinking water sources that aren’t on anyone’s radar.

“We want to be a voice saying ‘Hey, don’t forget about this,’” she said. “That’s encouraging to hear they’re thinking about the nexus” between chemicals and drinking water.

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