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EPA proposes to enable states to require ‘forever chemical’ cleanup, giving substances ‘hazardous’ label

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed to designate nine toxic “forever chemicals” as “hazardous constituents” under the nation’s law for cleaning up ongoing pollution, in a move that would enable states to require cleanups if the substances are released.

As part of an effort to limit contamination stemming from the class of toxic substances, also called PFAS, New Mexico wrote them into a permit that regulated emissions from the Cannon Air Force Base in 2018.

The military pushed back, suing in 2019 and saying it could not include these chemicals in its permit since they were not regulated at the federal level.

But the EPA’s proposal this week would put New Mexico’s efforts in line with federal regulators — as well as going beyond the state, and beyond the military, to impact other states and private companies that release PFAS.

An EPA press release said its updates would “assure that EPA’s regulations clearly reflect EPA’s and authorized states’ authority to require cleanup of the full range of substances that the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) intended, including emerging chemicals of concern, such as PFAS, that may present substantial hazards, at permitted facilities.”

PFAS have been used in a range of nonstick and waterproof products such as clothes, makeup and cookware, as well as military firefighting foam.

They have been linked to health issues including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, as well as decreased fertility, weakened immune systems and high cholesterol.

A federal study estimated they are in the blood of 97 percent of Americans, and another study estimated them to be in 45 percent of U.S. tap water.

They have been nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they tend to persist and accumulate in nature instead of breaking down.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of  government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said the EPA’s proposal “moves us one step closer to ensuring that PFAS wastes are disposed in a way that doesn’t ultimately release them back in the environment.”

“States will have new powers to order corrective actions where there’s a release that poses an imminent danger,” he added.

This is not the first time the EPA has floated a “hazardous” label for PFAS. In 2022, it proposed to declare two PFAS as hazardous substances under a different law that would similarly enable cleanup for sites with legacy, rather than ongoing, pollution.

Additionally, the Biden administration has proposed to issue national drinking water limits for some of the substances.

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