The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing updates to its hazardous waste management rules, including stricter regulations for nine toxic ‘forever chemicals’ under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Announced in late January, the proposed rules seek to redefine hazardous materials to include a wider range of contaminants, including the group of chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The changes could have far-reaching impacts, from increased regulations to the possibility of widespread lawsuits. Health officials have linked the nine PFAS in question to several health issues for humans, including asthma, reproductive troubles and an increased risk of some cancers.

“From day one, President Biden promised to address harmful forever chemicals and other emerging contaminants to better protect communities from exposure, and [these] actions are just the latest from EPA as we continue to deliver on the president’s commitment,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a statement.

“Thanks to strong partnerships with our co-regulators in the states, we will strengthen our ability to clean up contamination from PFAS, hold polluters accountable and advance public health protections.”

Proposed Hazardous Status for PFAS

PFAS, often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not easily break down and can accumulate in the body, animals and the environment, have been widely used in industrial and consumer products since the 1940s relatively unchecked.

These products range from waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware to firefighting foams, all of which contribute to the prevalence of PFAS in the environment.

If accepted, the rule would label nine PFAS as “hazardous constituents.” To be considered as such, the chemicals must be harmful enough to humans and wildlife to be considered dangerous waste under environmental laws.

“EPA evaluated toxicity and epidemiology data for these chemicals and determined that these nine PFAS compounds meet the criteria for listing as a RCRA hazardous constituent,” according to the agency.

Despite their widespread use, the impact of PFAS on human health and the environment has raised significant concerns and prompted regulatory agencies like the EPA to reassess their approach to managing these substances.

“With this proposal, EPA is providing clear regulatory authority to address emerging contaminants that are not included under the regulatory definition of hazardous waste,” the EPA stated on its website.

The public can comment on the proposed rule when it is uploaded to the Federal Register under docket number EPA-HQ-OLEM-2023-0278.

Potential Consequences Under New Rule

Under the new rule, facilities that treat, store or dispose of hazardous wastes will be required to investigate and remediate contaminated soil, groundwater and surface water. This reflects an enhanced strategy to manage pollution at its source.

The RCRA Corrective Action Program is central to this regulation and requires stringent cleanup efforts, ensuring that facilities take responsibility for mitigating environmental damage.
This could be a nationwide problem. Last year the U.S. Geological Society found nearly half of the U.S. drinking water supply was contaminated with PFAS.

Also in 2023, the EPA announced new drinking water limits for six PFAS — including PFOA and PFOS — at four parts per trillion (ppt), far lower than the 2016 threshold. To get a sense of how small four ppt is, imagine four grains of sand inside of an Olympic swimming pool.

The EPA plans to target manufacturers, users and other parties involved with PFAS for enforcement. This may result in more locations contaminated with PFAS being classified as Superfund sites or areas needing water treatment, leading to lawsuits over cleanup costs and claims against those who made or sold PFAS products, according to commentary in Reuters.

Aqueous film forming foam, used by firefighters for years, is known to contain PFAS. Its use has resulted in thousands of lawsuits claiming harm.

As of February 2024, there were 6,994 pending AFFF lawsuits in South Carolina multidistrict litigation. That litigation includes the claims of individuals in multiple states, as well as multiple water supply companies requesting compensation for filtering the chemicals in the foam out of drinking water.

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