EPA administrator Pruitt pledges to combat PFAS groundwater contamination

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (EPA)

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has pledged action to address PFAS ground water contamination.

Listen now

”This is a national priority that we need to focus upon as a country,” Pruitt said Tuesday at an EPA national PFAS leadership summit. .

PFAS is a category of chemical compounds long used in a range of products: from non-stick cookware to firefighting foam, which have contaminated ground water at many locations, including Alaska.

Pruit listed actions the EPA is initiating to address the issue, starting with a legal threshold for what concentration of the chemicals is dangerous in drinking water.

”We will take the next step, under the Safe Drinking Water Act process, to evaluate the need of a maximum contaminant level PFOA and PFAS,” Pruitt said.

The EPA currently only has a lifetime exposure level for PFAS compounds, a threshold some studies indicate is too high, putting people at risk of health effects, including cancer. Pruitt also identified other steps the EPA’s is taking.

The burn pit was lined with plastic, but firefighting foam was splashed outside the pit during training. That gave the PFAS and related chemical compounds a means to infiltrate groundwater.
(City of Fairbanks)

But according to a recent Politico report, the EPA blocked release of a federal assessment of PFAS that showed the compounds to be dangerous in drinking water at lower concentrations than the current standard. Politico reports that one of Pruitt’s aides stopped the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry from releasing the assessment earlier this year, after a White House official warned it would be “a public relations nightmare.”

Alaska Community Action on Toxics Executive Director Pam Miller says the blocked assessment follows peer reviewed studies, which confirm health effects at concentrations well below the current federal and state health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

”We’ve seen, in the last couple of years in particular, just kind of a burgeoning of evidence about the health effects of these chemicals at the very low part-per-trillion level,” Miller said. “Things like immune system dysfunction, certain types of cancers, kidney and testicular cancer can occur at very low levels of exposure.”

Miller says the public has a right to see the new federal assessment, and it’s deeply concerning that the Trump administration has blocked its release.

Some states have lowered their health advisory contamination level, but Alaska Department of Health assessor Stacey Cooper says no immediate action is planned.

”Until the report is actually published, and we can see it and review it, we’re just going to be following the current national guidelines,” Cooper said. “So no, there’s nothing official that the state is doing. You know, we’re looking at studies and we’re trying to understand the situation ourselves, but at the moment, we’re just waiting for national advice.”

Fairbanks, however, is not waiting. Fairbanks City Councilman David Pruhs recently directed staff to draft a plan over the next 90 days on how the city will respond to the growing problem of groundwater contamination caused by PFAS in firefighting foam.

This story has been updated with information from the Alaska Community Action on Toxics as well as the state Department of Health.