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OPINION

The EPA is Getting Out Over its Regulatory Skis

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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MARK J. TERRILL

recent proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enact the first-ever federally enforceable water quality standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has prompted discussions about the potential impacts of these regulations on public health, the environment, and the economy.

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As a former Member of Congress who served on several committees of jurisdiction that handled water issues, I have always been an advocate for safe and clean drinking water. But any such standards must be viewed within the broader portfolio of drinking water priorities and developed based upon the best available science. Unfortunately, this proposal misses that mark.

By way of background, PFAS is a broad term for a family of chemicals that have been used for decades across industries and that are essential to modern life. Consisting of more than 5,000 different chemistries, each PFAS compound has its own unique chemical makeup and uses as well as environmental and health profiles. However, despite this fact, the EPA is pressing forward with a regulation that would lump many of these chemicals together in one basket.

While some advocates for this aggressive regulation have cherry-picked data to claim that the science is settled on this issue, the fact remains that there is no clear evidence that exposure to the PFAS chemicals used today causes cancer or any other serious health effects. The EPA's own website says that it doesn’t fully understand "how harmful PFAS are to people and the environment", and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has similarly found that “human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS is uncertain.” 

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In fact, many PFAS chemicals have never even been evaluated by the EPA for health risks, including two that would be swept up in these new water quality standards. In other instances, the EPA has violated the scientific integrity of its process by using studies that had not yet been peer reviewed to set previous “Advisory Guidelines” that subsequently helped to inform this newly proposed rule.

This background now leads to a new regulatory regime proposed by the Biden-Harris Administration that will vastly expand the difficulties facing water utilities, which have expressed concerns about the impacts the rule may have on state staffing levels, lab capacity for monitoring needs, and water treatment capabilities. As the State Water Drinking Association has pointed out, this new rule will also result in “significant rate increases” for customers of water systems that will suddenly find themselves required to test for and remove PFAS to exceedingly stringent standards.  

This newly proposed rule sets Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFAS chemicals well outside international norms, as much as 25 times stricter than World Health Organization guidelines in some cases. Given that this rule will also impose a whole new set of monitoring requirements and that these MCLs were in some cases set at the lowest level that can be detected in lab settings, such testing may likely be expensive and time-consuming. Some experts fear that a bottleneck in such testing capabilities may be on the horizon, resulting in possibly lengthy delays as a result.

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Water utilities that are already struggling to staff up to implement the new bipartisan infrastructure law as well as the lead and copper rule, could find that this new PFAS rule would create an additional competing priority. In some cases, this result may come at the expense of dealing with more pressing and better-known threats to public health and water quality such as removing and replacing the lead pipes that are poisoning communities across the United States and are responsible for the well-publicized water safety issues in Flint, MI and Jackson, MS

I am concerned that the Biden-Harris Administration would be willing to move forward with proposed regulations that could result in unnecessary costs and disruptions for water utilities and their customers, given the shortcomings of the underlying science, which are quite substantial. The fact remains that the EPA has failed to determine safe exposure levels and has not even proven whether PFAS chemicals pose a health hazard to humans – two major milestones that should be achieved before instituting such an onerous regulatory regime.

The public will have a chance to comment, and the EPA would be wise to make changes before issuing a final rule, which is expected by the end of the year, or scrap it all together and start anew. Given the paucity of substantial evidence as to the risks posed to humans by PFAS chemicals, it is simply premature for the EPA to impose these new ill-advised regulations.

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Former Congressman John T. Doolittle previously served as the Subcommittee Chairman for Water and Power for the Committee on Natural Resources and was also the Subcommittee Vice-Chairman for Energy and Water on the Committee on Appropriations.

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