What the EPA's plan to regulate 'forever chemicals' means for Minnesota

Hands wearing blue gloves holds a water sample in small plastic bottle.
Minnesota Department of Health student paraprofessional Carolyn Enright holds a water sample from a private well in West Lakeland Township, Minn. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an ambitious strategy to deal with PFAS — human-made “forever chemicals” that have polluted public drinking water supplies, and accumulated in fish and wildlife.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a long-awaited plan to regulate so-called "forever chemicals."

Known as PFAS, these chemicals are found in a variety of products. They have contaminated drinking water supplies around the United States, including in Minnesota.

Minnesota has been dealing with the impacts of PFAS pollution for years. Here’s a closer look at how the federal plan could affect those efforts.

What are PFAS, and why are they a problem?

PFAS stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. This family of human-made chemicals is found in a wide variety of consumer and household products, including nonstick cookware, carpet, cosmetics, water-repellent clothing and firefighting foam.

They are resistant to heat, water and grease and are known to be very durable. But that also means they don't break down in the environment, which is why they're sometimes called "forever chemicals."

They've gotten into groundwater, lakes and rivers, contaminated public drinking water supplies and accumulated in fish and wildlife.

Prolonged exposure to some PFAS has been linked to negative health effects such as kidney and thyroid problems, low birth weight and some cancers.

What's in the federal plan?

The Environmental Protection Agency calls its plan a “PFAS road map” — an ambitious strategy to deal with the chemicals by addressing their whole life cycle, not just reacting when contamination is discovered.

The EPA plan aims to restrict PFAS from getting into the environment in the first place, to learn more about which chemicals pose human health risks and how to remove them, and also hold polluters accountable.

politicians and scientists stand in a labratory.
Professor Detlef Knappe, right, leads Michael Regan, left, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Gov. Roy Cooper on a tour of a laboratory that tests water samples for "forever chemicals," or PFAS, following an announcement of a Biden administration EPA plan to address PFAS pollution Monday at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP

One way the agency wants to do that is by requiring manufacturers to provide data about the chemicals they produce.

The EPA also plans to set enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water and will designate some PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, making it easier to hold manufacturers of these chemicals financially responsible for cleaning up contamination.

The plan also calls for more testing and monitoring of PFAS, their health effects and how they're getting into the environment.

Hasn’t Minnesota already been dealing with these chemicals for quite a few years?

Yes. PFAS were first discovered in drinking water supplies in the east Twin Cities metro in the early 2000s.

In 2018, Minnesota settled a lawsuit against 3M, which manufactured two PFAS chemicals for several decades and disposed of them in landfills in the east metro, where they leached into the groundwater.

Since then, PFAS have been detected in water, soil, sediment and fish across Minnesota.

Early this year, state agencies rolled out their own action plan called Minnesota’s PFAS Blueprint. It’s similar in some ways to the EPA’s plan.

The Legislature passed parts of that blueprint last session, including a ban on PFAS in some food packaging. But other parts met with resistance from some state lawmakers and chemical manufacturers.

How will the federal plan affect Minnesota's efforts to deal with these chemicals?

It should help bolster those efforts. While Minnesota has been a leader in addressing PFAS pollution, it’s a national problem that can’t be solved at the local or state level, especially since many PFAS manufacturers are global companies.

Federal requirements that manufacturers test new chemicals before bringing them to market would be helpful to get ahead of the problem, said Katrina Kessler, an assistant commissioner for water policy and agriculture at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

So would additional testing for PFAS in wastewater, landfills and other places where they might be getting into the environment, she said.

"Our blueprint is founded on the premise that we want to prevent pollution whenever possible, because that is the cheapest, most efficient way to avoid having to clean up and treat,” Kessler said. 

State officials also say having federal drinking water limits for PFAS would be helpful to provide consistency across the country.

Minnesota already has set guidance values for about half a dozen of these substances. Those values help cities decide if they need to take action to remove the chemicals or find a different water source. The state guidelines are not enforceable, but federal limits would be.

Having enforceable federal standards would mean more frequent testing of water supplies for PFAS and could drive advances in treatment technology, said Jim Kelly, manager of environmental surveillance and assessment at the Minnesota Department of Health.

The federal plan doesn't specify exactly what those limits on PFAS in drinking water will be, so it’s not clear whether they will be more stringent than Minnesota's.

How have environmental groups reacted to the EPA's plan?

They're calling it a positive step forward — and long overdue. They say the EPA has known of the risks posed by PFAS since the late 1990s but failed to act to comprehensively address the problem.

They praised the plan to designate some PFAS as hazardous substances, saying that should speed the cleanup of contaminated sites and provide more access to research and funding.

"It also sends a message to chemical companies and manufacturers that they really need to think twice before they use these chemicals without understanding the full impact of the full life cycle of the chemical,” said Deanna White, state director of Clean Water Action.

However, White thinks the EPA should have gone further. She wants to see the entire category of PFAS regulated or even banned, instead of just certain compounds.

“You need to really think about them as a class to get to the core problems that exist across all the chemicals, and to just stop using them,” she said.

Environmental groups say it will be critical for the federal government to provide funding to carry out this plan. The federal infrastructure bill includes $10 billion to address PFAS, but it's not clear whether Congress will pass it.

How have chemical manufacturers reacted?

The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization that represents chemical companies, said it supports the “strong, science-based regulation of chemicals,” including PFAS. 

But not all of these substances are the same and should not be grouped together or regulated the same way, the council said.

The council also said that there may not be alternatives for some PFAS used in products such as cell phones and solar panels.