DEP Should Establish Sound Standards

February 20, 2019

Pennsylvania has a deep history of dealing with the long-term environmental effects of heavy industry, from permanently contaminated land to polluted water. So the Wolf administration is on solid footing in leap-frogging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s nascent effort to set strong standards for two toxic chemicals that threaten water supplies in several areas. The chemicals, known by the shorthand PFOA and PFOS, once were heavily used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, and in fire-fighting foams. They no longer are produced or used in the United States but are persistent in the environment. According to the EPA, the chemicals have been linked to several forms of cancer, elevated cholesterol, low birth weights and thyroid problems. The federal agency has recommended that levels of the chemicals in water not exceed 70 parts per trillion. In Pennsylvania, the chemicals have been of special concern near the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Montgomery County, where the chemicals were used in foams to fight aviation fires, most extensively in training. The EPA announced last week that it has begun the regulatory process to set permanent maximum contamination levels for the chemicals, which could take years. Soon afterwards, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced that it has started its own process to set maximum contamination levels, which is a sound course. Federal law holds that state governments may not establish pollution standards weaker than those in federal law, but may adopt stronger standards if they are based on sound science. New Jersey, a state with an industrial history similar to Pennsylvania’s, already has established that sound science through its Drinking Water Quality Institute. The institute has recommended maximum contamination levels for the two chemicals — 13 parts per trillion and 14 parts per trillion — that are far more stringent than the federal advisory of 70 parts per trillion. The state DEP can accelerate Pennsylvania’s new standards by adopting the New Jersey Water Quality Institute’s research. There is no need to wait for the federal process or to replicate the New Jersey results. The DEP should establish sound standards as quickly as possible.