Groundwater Regulations

According to POLITICO, even Republicans in Congress are concerned that the EPA will not move forward with a rulemaking to regulate PFOS and PFOA.  It appears acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has already approved a decision, contained in the agency’s forthcoming chemical management plan, not to add the chemicals to the group of contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  The decision follows controversy over the Trump administration’s suppression of a report from the Department of Health and Human Services which suggests that Perfluoroalkyl compounds, which include PFOS and PFOA, are more prevalent, and pose a greater risk to Americans’ health, than previously known.

The question now is whether Congress will take any action.  It has rare leverage at the moment, as Mr. Wheeler’s nomination to head the EPA as its permanent Administrator is in the hands of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  A vote is scheduled for February 5th and, on a committee where the Republicans have only a one seat advantage, a defection by any one of them could potentially kill Mr. Wheeler’s prospects.  Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia has spoken out on the need to address Perfluoroalkyl contamination and may be the deciding vote.

Given the willingness of numerous elected Republicans to come out in favor of new federal regulations for PFOS and PFOA, some additional EPA action on the subject seems inevitable sooner or later.  And although EPA is likely to add PFOS and FPOA to the list of CERCLA hazardous substances, that will probably be viewed as inadequate by many, given how prevalent the chemicals are now understood to be.

But even if eventual federal regulation of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water were a certainty, further delay will likely have several significant effects.  Deferred  remediation expenditures is one obvious one.  Less straight forward, however, is the impact from parallel state action.  Some states already regulate the chemicals in groundwater and more will likely follow, particularly in the face of federal inaction.  If more of those regulatory regimes have time to be put into place and tested on a wide scale, they could indirectly shape federal regulation.  EPA may approach its regulatory role differently in a context where a contaminant is almost completely unregulated, compared to one where many states are effectively addressing a problem.  Furthermore, the Clean Drinking Water Act regulation must consider economic costs and benefits, and if states push ahead in this area they may spur the generation of substantial data on which the Agency can make that assessment.

We expect a lot more news and developments in this area and will be tracking it closely at Environmental Law Next.