A dangerous chemical has tainted N.J. water for decades and the feds are still dragging their feet
by Sol Warren
It is a problem that has tainted New Jersey’s drinking water for years.
Areas of the state are contaminated with a cocktail of dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) after decades of hazardous disposal by manufacturing plants across New Jersey. Since the 1940s, when use of the chemicals began, PFAS chemicals were discharged in the plants’ wastewater, which then mixed with drinking water supplies. The industrial use of PFAS has been phased out of American facilities in recent years, but the damage has been done.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the health effects of PFAS exposure range from increased risk of cancer to stunting the growth of children. Exposure to these chemicals, which have been used to manufacture everything from nonstick cook-wear and stain-resistant carpets to cosmetics, is even linked to lower chances of pregnancy in affected women.
But efforts to rectify the issue — particularly on the federal level — have moved slowly.
On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its first nationwide “action plan” to deal with the PFAS family of chemicals. The plan includes expanded monitoring of the chemical around the country, continued enforcement actions to cleanup contamination hotspots and further research of the health effects stemming from PFAS consumption.
Yet there are still no federal drinking water standards for the chemicals.
“The PFAS action plan is the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA,” said Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s Acting Administrator.
The new action plan was announced Thursday morning in Philadelphia, just up the Delaware River from Paulsboro and West Deptford, where New Jerseyans have been grappling with PFAS contamination for years due to the area’s heavily industrial past. It was there that, from 1985 to 2010, Solvay Solexis Specialty Polymers used a member of the PFAS chemical family known as PFNA.
The Solvay plant discharged the chemical within its wastewater and now Gloucester County is home to some of the highest levels of PFNA contamination on Earth. The EPA plan comes months after New Jersey established statewide drinking water standards for PFNA.
PFAS pollution has been found elsewhere in the Garden State, with particularly high concentrations near New Jersey’s military installations like Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and Naval Weapon State Earle, where the use of fire-fighting foam containing the chemicals has dirtied nearby waters.
Wheeler said that the EPA will continue to take enforcement actions against PFAS polluters based on a 2016 health advisory issued by the agency, but drinking water standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act won’t be proposed until the end of the year.
Even after that proposal is unveiled, the rules-making process can take years and is not guaranteed to establish new drinking water standards.
Environmental groups slammed the EPA for not proposing drinking water standards for the chemicals in the new plan.
“While the agency fumbles with this ‘mis-management plan,’ millions of people will be exposed to highly toxic PFAS from drinking contaminated water,” said Erik Olson, the senior director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As a guardian of public health, Administrator Andrew Wheeler should revisit this embarrassing decision.”