Biden’s efforts to remove ‘forever chemicals’ offer clear contrast to Trump’s record

PFAS

President Joe Biden greets Matthew Regan, 7, the son of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, as Biden arrives in Greensboro, N.C., in 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

By Michael McElroy

May 6, 2024

The Environmental Protection Agency under President Biden has implemented a plan to rid the nation’s water supply of dangerous PFAS. Under Trump, the EPA deferred to the industries responsible for the contamination.

President Biden visited Wilmington last week to talk about something the city knows far too well – the importance of clean water.

In a speech on Thursday, Biden announced $3 billion in funding as part of a larger effort to replace every lead pipe in the country over the next decade, which amounts to some 300,000 pipes across the state and more than 300 in this port city.

Lead is a toxic metal that is especially dangerous to children and especially prevalent in disadvantaged communities whose crumbling infrastructure has long been neglected. But Wilmington is also an epicenter in another long-developing water disaster: the presence of PFAS in drinking water.

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a collection of industrial byproducts known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they can linger in air, water, and soil for generations. PFAS have been around in some form since World War II and have been linked to several serious health issues, including liver failure, infertility, birth defects and some forms of cancer.

While the problem has flummoxed communities small and large nationwide, it has been especially acute in Wilmington and New Hanover County. These areas get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River, and for 40 years, DuPont—and later its subsidiary Chemours—dumped PFAS directly into the river. But even after lawsuits prompted the companies to stop dumping, the chemicals still found their way into the soil, air and water supplies miles down river.

Industry leaders and federal health officials have long known of the dangers the chemicals pose, but while North Carolina lawmakers have worked on a bipartisan effort to address the problem, little was done nationally until the Biden administration came into office.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which sought to downplay the dangers of PFAS during the Trump administration, has during Biden’s term introduced the most aggressive efforts in decades to mitigate the damage, filter the chemicals from drinking water, and press industries to clean up the messes they made.

So what exactly is PFAS?

The man-made chemicals are ubiquitous. They are used to prevent clothing from staining and pots from scratching. They keep boots and raincoats dry, they prevent pet odors from embedding in carpets. They are in so many products that they are bound to be somewhere in your home.

The properties that make them so strong are also what make them so dangerous. PFAS are so resilient to strain, heat, and force that they can take thousands of years to break down. And they accumulate in the body.

Researchers have also linked PFAS exposure to high cholesterol, thyroid conditions, low birth weights, developmental delays, and pregnancy complications.

Recent studies show that more than 98% of people in the United States have at least some traces of PFAS in their bodies, and the chemicals have been found in at least half of all water supplies across the country.

What is being done?

Soon after Biden took office, the EPA released a “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” a plan setting out specific actions and timelines it promised to employ to rid the nation’s drinking water of the chemicals.

The plan, the agency said, was to attack the problem from multiple angles and departments, with each action “build[ing] upon one another and lead to more enduring and protective solutions.”

The roadmap included initiatives to fully test and monitor water supplies across the country to better understand the scope of the contamination; to enact new restrictions on the chemical and require industries to prevent it from getting into the water, land and air; and develop funding models and guidelines to help (and force) utilities, local governments, and industry leaders to filter the chemicals from the water.

A roadmap

Here are some of the major points on the roadmap the Biden administration has already met:

  • Established the nation’s first drinking water standards for PFAS, which will require utilities to reduce the chemicals in the water to the lowest possible levels and alert residents if the numbers are too high. This move alone will bring clean water to more than 100 million people across the country, the Biden administration said.
  • Invested $10 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to test and mitigate the chemicals across the country, including nearly $540 million the administration has secured for North Carolina to clean its water of all contaminants. (Read here for how some that funding, and some initiative, helped Maysville, NC tackle its PFAS problem)
  • Added another $1 billion to help communities pay for the filtration systems needed to comply with the new standard.
  • Developed better testing measures and proposed a more stringent review process before new chemicals can be introduced into the marketplace.
  • Required the Defense Department to assess the contamination caused at military bases across the country and start the process of cleaning the water in the surrounding communities. Several North Carolina bases, including Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Fort Liberty, and Camp Lejeune have been tied to the PFAS found in local water supplies.
  • Increased testing of the nation’s food supplies for the chemicals.

There are genuine concerns about the cost of employing many of the Biden administration’s regulations— the technology certainly exists to clear forever-chemicals from the water supply, but it’s not cheap. Maysville’s new system cost more than a million dollars, a steep price tag for small communities.

But, the Biden administration says, it will continue to invest federal dollars to help fund the projects.

What took so long?

Under the Trump White House, the EPA acted like a completely different entity. Until the Biden administration came into office, the regulation of PFAS was more like the wild west, with the agency deferring to many of the industries responsible for the contamination.

The Trump administration appointed people with industry ties to many of the boards charged with oversight of those very industries. These appointees in turn weakened some regulations and helped polluters avoid others. The EPA under Trump overruled scientists and increased the number of federally approved PFAS chemicals, despite the growing evidence showing their risks. And they prevented EPA officials from warning Congress about a looming loophole in new legislation about the chemicals.

According to a Politico exclusive in 2018, EPA officials and the Trump White House sought to block a major report showing that the chemicals were even more dangerous than was publicly known at the time.

If the public saw the report, a White House aide said, it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” Politico reported.

During his one term in office, Trump also proposed cutting more than $200 million from the EPA’s efforts to address the contamination; threatened to veto a law requiring clean up the PFAS tied to military sites; and rolled back several drinking water regulations the Obama administration had implemented.

What’s next?

The EPA administrator, Michael Regan, held the comparable post for North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality from 2017 to 2021. He has come back to the state several times since then, and announced the new EPA standards last month in Fayetteville, which like Wilmington, has a severe PFAS problem.

Over the next phase of the EPA’s plan, he and other federal health officials say they will continue to inform the public and work at the community level to clear the water.

If Biden wins re-election, his office has said, the roadmap will continue.

According to Project 2025, the far-right plan to Trump returns to the White House, he would also return to form at the EPA, deregulating PFAS and other pollutants, and reorganizing the agency so that industries that caused the pollution again had a louder voice than those affected by it.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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