By Peter Hall and Lisa Sorg 

The Environmental Protection Agency has established the first-ever federal regulations for six types of toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water that are found in about one-third of public water systems tested across Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The maximum contaminant levels set by the EPA significantly exceed the state’s limits for two types of PFAS, a class of chemicals widely used in manufacturing and other applications such as firefighting foam that break down very slowly and can linger in water almost indefinitely.

Drinking water contamination around the site of the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Bucks and Montgomery counties was one of the first sites where PFAS pollution got widespread attention in Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-4th District), whose district includes the former military site, said. 

Dean said that although her brother worked as an aircraft mechanic on the base, the hazards of PFAS were unknown to her and the community. The chemicals’ manufacturers, however, have known for more than 70 years that they were linked to cancers, liver disease, developmental delays in children and other health issues, she said.

“Yet they did nothing, while advocates for our right to clean water — members of our communities — educated themselves, their neighbors, their representatives. They educated me and they demanded change,” Dean said, noting action on the Willow Grove site helped to shine a national spotlight on the issue.

The new standards will reduce PFAS exposure for roughly 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said.

“This is the most significant action on PFAS the EPA has ever taken. The result is a comprehensive and life-changing rule, one that will improve the health and vitality of so many communities across our country,” Regan said.

The six chemicals targeted by the EPA are among 15,000 types of PFAS, short for perfluoro- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, where they can linger for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Traditional water treatment systems cannot remove the compounds.

The maximum contaminant levels, also known as MCLs, are legally enforceable. The affected utilities have three years to complete initial monitoring, after which they must conduct regular testing to ensure they are in compliance. 

Starting in 2029, the affected utilities must comply with the MCLs. Utilities also must include the results and any violations in their annual consumer confidence reports sent to customers.

The Biden administration has allocated $1 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help utilities test for the compounds, to install additional drinking water treatment systems, and, if necessary, connect to alternate water supplies. Private well owners can also qualify for a portion of the funds.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, noted that the new MCLs are the first enacted by the federal government since 1996, which Carluccio said is an enormous achievement for the EPA and the Biden administration. 

“This monumental step by EPA, while too late in coming for those who have already been harmed, is one that is essential towards the just goal of providing all people across our nation with reliably safe drinking water,” Carluccio said.


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