On Thursday, the Trump Administration announced that it will issue a draft regulation by the end of the year placing a limit on two chemicals frequently found in drinking water. The steps to eventually regulate two types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) known as PFOA and PFOS were announced by U.S. EPA head Andrew Wheeler. Other steps outlined Thursday include the initiation of a regulatory process to list PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under Superfund and a promise that EPA will “very soon” release interim groundwater clean-up recommendations for sites contaminated with PFAS. EPA is also looking into regulating other chemicals in the PFAS family.

PFAS are man-made chemicals that are resistant to water, grease, and stains and have thousands of consumer and industrial uses. They can be found in carpets, camping gear, fast-food wrappers, fabrics for furniture, water-repellent fabrics, cleaners, cookware, and more. Industry uses include O-rings and gaskets that prevent mechanical breakdowns, metal plating, and fire-fighting foams. Currently, many PFAS concentrated products end up in landfills which can seep into the ground in unlined landfills or pool at the bottom of lined landfills and often end up in wastewater treatment plants that are not equipped to remove PFAS.

EPA currently has a health advisory level for PFAS compounds in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. However, EPA plans to consider setting federal maximum contaminant levels as part of its draft regulation, which would require increased monitoring and reporting efforts, and would ultimately give the agency more authority to pursue polluters. Likewise, the designation of PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under Superfund will give communities and states the power to recover costs of cleaning up the chemicals from polluters. In its 72-page Action Plan, EPA highlighted its intention to improve PFAS cleanup strategies, prohibit environmental release, improve monitoring, and increase enforcement of those in violation of federal PFAS standards.

The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history continues to affect around 800,000 federal workers and major agencies, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). Despite the shutdown, however, many EPA employees are being called into work without pay.

On January 14, 2019, EPA updated its contingency plan for shut down to increase the total number of “excepted personnel” to 891 or 6.37% of its total workforce. EPA’s contingency plan lists 486 HQ program employees as “excepted personnel” and 405 regional employees as “excepted personnel.” 22 of the excepted regional employees include those located in Chicago at Region 5.

“Excepted personnel” are those that are necessary to perform excepted activities and are excluded from furlough during the shutdown, but only for the hours/days it takes them to perform their excepted activities. “Excepted activities” include activities such as providing for homeland and national security or personal services necessary to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, where the threat to human life or property is imminent. Such personal services include legal counseling, litigation, and law enforcement activities designed to protect human life and property from imminent threat. EPA has also stated that work in preparing for a congressional hearing is “excepted,” and, as such, EPA “excepted a limited number of employees” to help Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler prepare for his confirmation hearing, which the Senate held Wednesday.

As the partial government shutdown continues, it is expected that EPA functions and personnel responsibilities will continue to be limited to activities that are necessary to protect public health and safety. According to EPA’s contingency plan, once EPA receives notification that an appropriation has been approved or is imminent, it will contact EPA regional offices to begin resuming orderly operations.