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EPA failing to limit harmful chemicals in drinking water would be ‘unacceptable,’ GOP lawmaker says

Acting administrator's bid to become permanent EPA chief no longer viewed as a slam dunk.

Andrew Wheeler answers senators' questions during his confirmation hearing to be the next administrator of the EPA onl January 16, 2019. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Andrew Wheeler answers senators' questions during his confirmation hearing to be the next administrator of the EPA onl January 16, 2019. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Concern is growing among lawmakers and public health experts over reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not intend to set limits for a harmful class of chemicals found in the drinking water of millions of Americans.

Delays in the federal government’s regulation of two chemicals — perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the best-known members of a family of compounds known as PFAS — will likely cause greater harm to residents who are exposed to high concentrations of the chemicals, experts say. The chemicals have been linked to severe health impacts, such as cancer, thyroid disease, and weakened childhood immunity.

Given the increased focus on the danger of PFAS chemicals in recent years, bowing to the chemical industry and refusing to set legal limits on the chemicals could prove politically risky for Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Some lawmakers, like Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), think it should cost Wheeler the opportunity to lead the agency permanently.

“I hope it would put a nomination like his in jeopardy,” Casey said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the agency would announce plans soon to address the widespread contamination of the nation’s drinking water with PFOA and PFOS. But he did not commit to setting a national legal limit on the chemicals in drinking water.

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This week, Politico reported that Wheeler approved a management plan for the PFAS family of chemicals in December that stated the EPA would not set limits on PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The chemical industry has strongly lobbied the Trump administration over the past two years in a bid to fend off stricter regulation of the chemicals.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers reacted with dismay to the report.

Casey’s state is home to several communities suspected to have high concentrations of the chemicals. Families living in the vicinity of two former naval facilities — the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Montgomery County and the Naval Air Warfare Center in Bucks County — have been working for years to get answers about the health impacts of the toxic chemicals in their drinking water.

If the EPA fails to set legal limits, water utilities and the Department of Defense will not be subjected to any federal requirements regarding testing and removal of the chemicals from drinking water supplies near the old naval facilities.

“I wish the White House would make this a priority and explain to the people of Bucks and Montgomery counties and a lot of other communities why they won’t use the authority they have under law to set a national standard,” Casey said. “These communities are going to remember this, not only in 2019 but also in 2020.”

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During Wheeler’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked him to commit to setting a drinking water standard for these chemicals. Wheeler declined to make that commitment.

“What he should’ve at least said is, ‘I’ll move heaven and Earth to get that done.’ But he wouldn’t say that either,” Carper said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

“This is an important issue for many of my Republican colleagues, and I think there’s a growing realization among them that a candidate to be the next administrator of EPA needs to be doing a better job addressing contaminants of concern,” Carper said.

Republican lawmakers also are speaking out about the EPA’s hesitance to set drinking water limits for the two chemicals. For communities grappling with PFAS contamination, swift federal action is needed to ensure safe drinking water, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

“Recent reports that suggest the EPA is shirking its responsibility to safeguard drinking water are unacceptable. It is imperative that the EPA takes concrete steps to protect American families from PFAS contaminants, and establishing a nationwide maximum contaminant level for them is a necessary part of that process,” said Fitzpatrick, whose district includes all of Bucks County and a small part of Montgomery County. Along with Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), Fitzpatrick co-chairs a new task force devoted to building support among the public and lawmakers for a more aggressive agenda on tackling PFAS contamination.

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If the EPA refuses to do its job when it comes to regulating PFAS, Fitzpatrick believes Congress must intercede. “I am fully prepared to work with Representative Kildee and members of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force to do just that,” he said.

The Trump administration’s own experts know how dangerous PFAS chemicals are, “yet Wheeler’s failure to set a drinking water standard shows a clear lack of seriousness on his part to protect public health,” Kildee said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Refusing to urgently address dangerous PFAS chemicals is one decision in a long list of examples of why he should not be entrusted to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.”

In response to this week’s reports, the EPA emphasized that it has not finalized its PFAS management plan. “[A]ny information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”

Since joining the EPA as deputy administrator in April 2018, Wheeler has come under intense criticism for his prior work lobbying on behalf of the coal sector and other polluting industries. Speculation that Wheeler won’t set legal limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water has added ammunition to critics’ claims that the acting administrator favors toxic and polluting industry interests over public health.

Since 2016, there has been ongoing public pressure in impacted communities to further reduce the presence of PFAS chemicals in public drinking water sources below the current EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

“If Mr. Wheeler won’t use his authority to set a health-protective limit for PFAS in drinking water, which by all accounts is a growing crisis facing millions of American families, he has no business working at EPA, much less running the agency,” Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said Wednesday in a statement.

The EPA administrator, Cook emphasized, has one overarching responsibility: to protect the public from all sources pollution. “And so far, Andrew Wheeler has time and again abdicated those duties by taking actions that will leave our water and air dirtier and public health at greater risk,” he said.