‘Important Step’: EPA Finalizes Rule to Clean Up Forever Chemical Contamination

While praising the move, campaigners also said that the agency “must require polluters to pay to clean up the entire class of thousands of toxic PFAS chemicals, and it must ban nonessential uses.”

By Jessica Corbett. Published 4-19-2024 by Common Dreams

Used at military bases ad civilian airports, PFAS in firefighting foam has contaminate drinking water across the country. Photo: Department of Defense/Public domain

Environmental and public health advocates on Friday welcomed the Biden administration’s latest step to tackle “forever chemicals,” a new Superfund rule that “will help ensure that polluters pay to clean up their contamination” across the country.

“It is time for polluters to pay to clean up the toxic soup they’ve dumped into the environment,” declared Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We all learned in kindergarten that if we make a mess, we should clean it up. The Biden administration’s Superfund rule is a big step in the right direction for holding polluters accountable for cleaning up decades of contamination.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—called forever chemicals because they remain in the human body and environment for long periods—have been used in products including firefighting foam, food packaging, and furniture, and tied to various health issues such as cancers, developmental and immune damage, and heart and liver problems.

As part of the Biden administration’s “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule designates perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as hazardous substances under the Superfund law—the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

“President Joe Biden pledged to make PFAS a priority in 2020 as part of the Biden-Harris plan to secure environmental justice. Today the Biden EPA fulfilled this important promise,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

David Andrews, EWG’s deputy director of investigations and a senior scientist, has led studies that have found that PFAS are potentially harming over 330 species and more than 200 million Americans could have PFOA and PFOS in their tap water.

“For far too long, the unchecked use and disposal of toxic PFAS have wreaked havoc on our planet, contaminating everything from our drinking water to our food supply,” he noted. “Urgent action is needed to clean up contaminated sites, eliminate future release of these pollutants, and shield people from additional exposure.”

Walter Mugdan, a volunteer with the Environmental Protection Network and the former Superfund director for EPA Region 2, explained that the “landmark action will allow the agency to more strongly address PFAS contamination and expedite cleanups of these toxic forever chemicals while also ensuring that cleanup costs fall on those most responsible—the industrial polluters who continue to manufacture and use them.”

“This action, coupled with EPA’s recent announcement of limits on PFAS in drinking water, are critical steps in protecting the public from these harmful compounds,” added the former official, referencing the first-ever national limits on forever chemicals in drinking water that the agency finalized earlier this month.

As an EWG blog post detailed in anticipation of the new rule earlier this week:

A hazardous substance designation allows the EPA to use money from its Superfund—the EPA’s account for addressing this kind of contamination—to quickly jump-start cleanup at a PFOA- or PFOS-polluted site and to recover the costs from the polluters. If a company that contributed to the PFAS contamination problem refuses to cooperate, the EPA can order a cleanup anyway and fine the company if they fail to take action.


When a chemical is added to the list of hazardous substances, the EPA sets a reportable quantity. Any time a substance is released above that quantity it must be reported. By imposing reportable quantities, the EPA will get immediate information about new PFAS releases and the chance to investigate immediately and, if necessary, take actions to reduce additional exposures. This information is also shared with state or tribal and local emergency authorities, so it can reach communities more quickly.

“For years, communities that have been exposed to these chemicals have been demanding that polluters be held accountable for the harm they have created and to pay for cleanup,” Safer States national director Sarah Doll highlighted. “We applaud EPA for taking this step and encourage them to take the next step and list all PFAS under the Superfund law.”

Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal policy program of Toxic-Free Future, similarly celebrated the EPA rule, calling it “an important step forward that will go a long way toward holding PFAS polluters accountable and beginning to clean up contaminated sites across the country.”

Like Doll, she also stressed that “until we declare the full class of PFAS hazardous and prevent further pollution by ending the use of all PFAS chemicals in common products like food packaging and firefighting gear, communities will continue to pay the price with our health and tax dollars.”

Mary Grant, the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watchagreed that further action is necessary.

“Chemical companies have attempted to hide what they have long known about the dangers of PFAS, creating a widespread public health crisis in the process,” Grant emphasized. “These polluters must absolutely be held accountable to pay to clean up their toxic mess.”

“Today’s new rules are a necessary and important step to jump start the cleanup process for two types of PFAS,” she said. “While we thank the EPA for finalizing these rules, much more is necessary: The EPA must require polluters to pay to clean up the entire class of thousands of toxic PFAS chemicals, and it must ban nonessential uses of PFAS to stop the pollution in the first place.”

Noting that it’s not just the EPA considering forever chemicals policies, Grant called on Congress to “reject various legislative proposals to exempt for-profit companies, including the water and sewer privatization industry, from being held accountable to pay to clean up PFAS.”

“It is an outrageous hypocrisy that large for-profit water corporations seek to privatize municipal water and sewer systems by touting themselves as a solution to PFAS contamination, and yet they want to carve themselves out of accountability for cleanup costs,” she argued. “No corporation should have free rein to pollute.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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