The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its intention to tighten regulations on hazardous waste, specifically targeting nine ‘forever chemicals’ under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Increasing regulation aims to address the environmental and health challenges posed by these specific PFAS substances, and could have far-reaching consequences, including the potential for extensive legal actions.

The EPA announced the move in late January when it proposed modifications to the RCRA and plans to broaden the scope of what is considered a hazardous substance. This would include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals that are known for their long-lasting presence in the environment and accumulation in humans and animals.

Health concerns linked to the nine targeted PFAS include asthma, reproductive issues and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan commented on the agency’s commitment to reign in the PFAS issues, saying, “From the beginning, President Biden has been committed to tackling the challenge of harmful forever chemicals and other emerging contaminants. The steps we are announcing today further this commitment, in partnership with state-level co-regulators, to intensify efforts to remediate PFAS contamination, enforce accountability and enhance public health protections.”

Proposed Regulatory Changes for PFAS Management

PFAS chemicals, often called ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not easily break down, have been widely used in consumer and industrial products since the 1940s.

These chemicals are in waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware and were once used in firefighting foam. The prolific use of the chemicals has led to contamination of nearly half of the U.S. drinking water supply, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2023.

Under the new proposal, the EPA aims to classify the nine specific PFAS as “hazardous constituents,” which would highlight the harmful impacts they have on human health and the environment and allow designation as hazardous waste.

“The agency’s analysis of toxicity and epidemiological data led to the determination that these nine PFAS meet the criteria for being listed as a RCRA hazardous constituent,” the EPA reported, highlighting the rationale behind this proposed classification.

The reevaluation of PFAS comes in response to a growing number of concerns about how these chemicals relate to human health and the environmental risks they cause.

“The proposal introduces clear regulatory guidelines for addressing contaminants such as PFAS that fall outside the current definition of hazardous waste,” the EPA explained on its website, outlining the agency’s approach to emerging contaminants.

The public has until April 8 to comment on the proposed rule on the Federal Register, under docket number EPA-HQ-OLEM-2023-0278.

Implications and Cleanup Efforts Under the New Proposal

Facilities that handle the treatment, storage or disposal of hazardous wastes will face new mandates to investigate and clean up any contaminated sites, including soil, groundwater and surface water, according to the proposal.
The changes emphasize a more aggressive stance on pollution control, which is part of the RCRA’s Corrective Action Program requirements for environmental remediation when hazardous chemicals are involved. These changes could also unleash a flood of litigation for cleanup.

The work to clean up the contamination PFAS has caused began last year. In 2023, the EPA set limits for six PFAS in drinking water to four parts per trillion, or ppt. New limits are significantly lower than in previous standards.

Thousands of people have filed PFAS lawsuits claiming aqueous film forming foam, used in firefighting and known to contain the forever chemicals, caused them to develop health issues. As of February 2024, the U.S. District Court of South Carolina had 6,994 pending lawsuits related to AFFF. The complainants include individuals, states and water supply companies who are seeking damages. Lawyers are still taking cases.

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