HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday announced proposed drinking water standards for a group of PFAS chemicals, saying the proposed standards would save lives and improve community health.

The proposals announced Tuesday are not as stringent as the suggested rules from last June but set the proposed limits for PFOA and PFOS chemicals at 4 parts per trillion.

For comparison, the EPA lifetime health advisory for drinking water that triggered a “don’t drink the water” advisory from water officials in Lawrence County in 2016 was 70 parts per trillion.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday that there will be a comment period for the new rules, but he wants to have the rules implemented by the end of 2023.

Regan said the chemicals, which provide a barrier to moisture in products like non-stick pans and Scotchgard, evolved from a so-called miracle, groundbreaking technology devolved into “one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.” These toxic chemicals are so pervasive and so long-lasting in the environment that they’ve been found in food, soil and water even in the most remote corners of our planet.

“These chemicals can accumulate in the body over time and we that long-term exposure to certain types of PFAS has been linked to serious illnesses including cancer, liver damage and high cholesterol,” Regan said.

PFAS chemicals were manufactured by 3M in Decatur for decades and the company is currently under a cleanup order from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). 3M has also settled a number of lawsuits related to PFAS contamination. The lawsuits that were settled include complaints brought by property owners in Morgan County, the Tennessee Riverkeeper environmental group and Decatur and Morgan County.

3M has said it will discontinue manufacturing of PFAS chemicals. The compounds are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in water and the accumulated chemicals located on the 3M property and at various dump sites and landfill sites in Morgan and Lawrence counties have contaminated water and soil in the area.

David Whiteside, the founder of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said the concentrations of PFAS in Lawrence and Morgan counties at identified dumping sites are among the highest his group has seen in the U.S. He hailed the announcement of Tuesday’s regulations as a victory for the environment and for public health.

“And it’s not just a local victory, it’s a national victory, much like 3M announcing they were going to stop making PFAS,” he said. “We have to look at our lawsuit and the contamination of the Tennessee River from sea level and from 30,000 feet. And, we need to make sure it gets cleaned up locally, but we need to enact national standards to safeguard Alabama and Tennessee and the rest of the country and that’s exactly what’s happening.”  

The new proposed standards are likely to pose challenges for Alabama drinking water producers to ensure they keep PFAS at low levels in the water. ADEM has announced it will provide millions in grant money for drinking water systems that need upgrading and the Biden Administration has also said it will assist rural communities faced with PFAS contamination.

ADEM released a statement concerning the new rule proposal late Tuesday afternoon, noting that at least 70 Alabama water systems may have to new additional measures to ensure compliance.

ADEM has been a national leader in addressing PFAS, both through testing and in requiring the cleanup of contaminated sites. Since 2020, the department has required public drinking water systems in the state to test for PFAS. (Results are on ADEM’s website.) It is likely the new EPA draft rule will affect some of those systems.

Based on ADEM’s required testing, the department anticipates that approximately 70 of the state’s 587 public water systems may be required to take additional measures to reduce the levels of PFOA or PFOS in their finished water, should this proposed rule be adopted.

ADEM has contacted all public drinking water systems in Alabama to make them aware of the draft rules as well as funding available through the department to address PFAS. ADEM is investing more state and federal resources than ever before to make sure Alabama’s drinking water is healthy and safe, including $463 million awarded in 2022 for infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management

The EPA said its proposed rule would:

“Regulate PFOA and PFOS as individual contaminants, and will regulate four other PFAS – PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals – as a mixture.

  • PFOA and PFOS: EPA is proposing to regulate PFOA and PFOS at a level they can be reliably measured at 4 parts per trillion.
  • PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals: EPA is also proposing a regulation to limit any mixture containing one or more of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and/or GenX Chemicals. For these PFAS, water systems would use an established approach called a hazard index calculation, defined in the proposed rule, to determine if the combined levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk.