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Schumer threatens to hold up nomination of EPA administrator

The Senate minority leader wants the federal agency to set maximum contaminant levels for PFOS and PFOA, which the EPA has said can cause cancer.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, during a news conference Monday in Farmingdale, said he wants the EPA to set maximum contaminant levels for perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid. (Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang)

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday to set strict limits on a pair of toxic chemicals contaminating the water supply of millions of Americans, including tens of thousands in Suffolk County.

At a news conference in Farmingdale, Schumer threatened to hold up acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's nomination to become the agency's permanent chief if he fails to set maximum contaminant levels for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which the agency has said can cause a host of health defects, including cancer. Schumer also plans to reintroduce legislation, first proposed in 2017, requiring the EPA to address the contamination.

"The EPA is trying to walk away from its responsibilities," said Schumer (D-N.Y.). "To take a carcinogenic chemical like PFOS and PFOA and say we are not going to pay attention to that when we have learned that it is in many more locations than you would think . . . makes no sense whatsoever."

New York State has moved ahead with regulating PFOA, PFOS and another chemical, 1,4-dioxane, over concern that the federal government wouldn’t act.

In December, a state panel of experts recommended a drinking water standard of 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, which would be the strictest in the nation. New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker is expected to adopt the measure some time this year, officials have said.

But the fixes would come with a hefty price tag. At the standard recommended by the state, an estimated 23 percent of public water wells in New York would need treatment — at a cost of $855 million in capital costs and $45 million a year for annual maintenance and operations.

The EPA has been studying whether to put maximum legal limits on the two chemicals, which have been detected in the groundwater near airports, industrial sites, military bases and firefighting training facilities. The contaminants are used in a number of industrial and commercial products, including firefighting foam, coatings that repel water, oil, stains and grease, food packaging, water-resistant clothing and stain-resistant carpeting.

But Schumer said Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, expressed resistance to aggressively regulating the chemicals during a meeting last week. 

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"He doesn't deserve to be EPA commissioner if he is abdicating his responsibility," Schumer said of Wheeler, whose nomination to become permanent EPA chief comes up for a vote Tuesday in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

An EPA spokesman said a plan is still to be determined.

“Despite what is being reported, [the] EPA has not finalized or publicly issued its PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] management plan, and any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature," said David Ross, EPA Office of Water assistant administrator. "The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”

The detection of PFOS and PFOA in groundwater prompted the state to name Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach and a Suffolk County fire training center in Yaphank to the state Superfund list. Two public water supply wells near the Hampton Bays Fire Station were closed when the chemicals were detected, while PFOA and PFOS were found in more than 150 private wells in Wainscott, near the East Hampton Airport. 

"This is not a small problem," said James Tomarken, commissioner of the Suffolk County Health Department, which has tested more than 850 private wells in the past two years for the contaminants. "This is a widespread problem, and it needs to be addressed by the federal government."

The EPA has said exposure to the chemicals, which are present in the bloodstream of roughly 98 percent of Americans, can cause testicular and kidney cancer, developmental issues in fetuses or to breast-fed infants, and liver damage.

To regulate a contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA must find it has adverse health effects, occurs frequently at levels of public health concern and "there is a meaningful opportunity for health reduction risk for people served by public water systems."

"To turn a blind eye to this issue, which is literally affecting thousands of people, and probably thousands more, is really unconscionable," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "We need an EPA that fights to protect our water, not to keep it polluted."

The two chemicals can be removed from wells using a carbon filtration system, which runs approximately $750,000, Esposito said.

"The good news is we know how to filter these chemicals out," Esposito said. "The bad news is it's going to cost a lot of money."

The EPA in 2016 established a voluntary health advisory for PFOS and PFOA, recommending a limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. A separate federal report released by the EPA last summer found the chemicals dangerous at much lower levels.

Last October, the state announced $200 million in grants to help communities remove "emerging" contaminants from drinking water, including $9.7 million for a water main in Wainscott and $1.65 million to the Bethpage Water District to treat 1,4-dioxane, which is found in paint strippers, solvents and household products.

With David M. Schwartz

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