The Bulletin Board

How a ‘hazardous chemicals’ designation by EPA would impact PFAS cleanup in the state

By: - September 6, 2022 1:27 pm

PFAS are prevalent in the environment and found in most Americans’ blood. (Getty Images)

The EPA proposed designating two kinds of PFAS “forever” chemicals as hazardous substances in late August. That designation would strengthen the federal and state response to contamination in New Hampshire, state officials said.

The designation would mean that both perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, would fall under the EPA’s Superfund program, which is designed to hold polluters accountable by making them pay to clean up pollution they put into the environment.

PFAS chemicals don’t readily break down in the environment and have been linked to reproductive health issues and certain kinds of cancer. But PFAS are prevalent in the environment and found in most Americans’ blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are common in consumer goods, including water-resistant clothing, stain resistant carpets and furniture, and nonstick pans.

Mike Wimsatt, director of the Solid Waste Division for New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services, said a hazardous designation would strengthen the state’s ability to ensure contamination is properly addressed.

“That’s a very positive thing for our Superfund program,” Wimsatt said.

With a designation in place, polluters would be liable under the Superfund program. 

“And that can be frightening for people because the nature of the program is that it has certain aspects associated with cost recovery and who has to pay for cleanup that are very powerful,” Wimsatt said.

For example, among a group of polluters, the one with the ability to pay can end up shouldering most of the cleanup expense, a powerful deterrent, according to Wimsatt.  

It also sends a message that these contaminants are going to be regulated and could lead to the federal government establishing enforceable surface water quality standards, Wimsatt said. Currently, it’s up to states to decide how to regulate PFAS contamination in the air and water.

In drinking water, New Hampshire sets a limit of 12 parts per trillion of PFOA and 15 ppt for PFOS. But in June the EPA announced drinking water health advisory levels of just .004 ppt. A health advisory isn’t enforceable, but it indicates that the agency believes the threshold for safe exposure to the chemical to be much lower than current state limits.   

Rep. Rosemarie Rung, who chairs the state’s PFAS commission, praised the EPA’s recent announcement. 

“What it means is we’re starting to build accountability for polluters that are just spewing PFAS into our air, soil, and water,” she said.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.