Residents, experts tell Pennsylvania officials that PFAS chemical cleanup will be expensive and difficult, but it's time to act
"These chemicals are destroying lives. We need you to make changes today, not tomorrow."
Pennsylvania environmental officials are bracing for a future filled with lawsuits and angry citizens as the state tries to get a handle on widespread chemical contamination that some other states have already begun to mitigate.
At a public hearing on Friday held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP], experts from states, like New Jersey and Michigan, testified about a group of chemicals referred to as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances).
Hundreds of sites across the country, including at least 20 in Pennsylvania, have been contaminated by PFAS.
PFAS chemicals have been used in hundreds of consumer products that repel water or oil, such as waterproof clothing and non-stick pans. But, so far the biggest contamination sites have been discovered around industrial sites and military bases that used fire-fighting foams containing PFAS. The biggest threat to the public, according health officials, is how these chemicals are leaching into the water supply.
Exposure to these chemicals, even at very low levels, is associated with a wide range of health impacts including cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and birth defects. And, while it's not clear if the chemicals are to blame, Pennsylvania residents who attended the hearing and live near PFAS-contaminated sites rattled off dozens of family members—and pets— who have struggled with cancers.
Most of the 11 Pennsylvania residents who spoke at the hearing demanded more action from the state. They say the towns, rather than the polluters, are picking up the cleanup costs, and residents are being burdened with paying for their own medical tests.
"When is someone going to step up to the plate?" said Hope Grosse, whose family lives near a contamination site at the former Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center. She testified that PFAS contamination was found in her family's private well and the local public system in 1996. She and family members have been stricken with various cancers.
"These chemicals are destroying lives," she said. "We need you to make changes today, not tomorrow."
In the absence of federal regulations, many states are just beginning to test for the chemicals and launch cleanup efforts. In September, Gov. Tom Wolf formed a PFAS Action Team to address the issue in Pennsylvania.
Some other states started investigating and taking action much earlier. Michigan has spent tens of millions organizing cleanups.
New Hampshire organized health studies with thousands of participants. New Jersey has implemented a more stringent drinking water standard. Michigan has implemented standards for groundwater and surface water, which empower the state to initiate cleanup efforts.
Two of the 20 contamination sites identified so far in Pennsylvania are near Pittsburgh: the Pittsburgh Air National Guard base in Moon Township and Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station in Coraopolis. Rick Rogers, the associate director of the Office of Drinking Water at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], testified that there may well be hundreds of more contamination sites at existing Superfund sites.
In January, Pennsylvania will start testing some of the more than 14,000 sources of drinking water. The DEP is trying to prioritize which sites to test first because there isn't funding to test them all, according to Lisa Daniels, the department's acting deputy for water programs.
"It's not a simple problem and it won't have a simple fix," said Patrick McDonnell, the DEP secretary. "What we're doing is beginning a journey here along a path that starts with a lot of hard work."
More stringent standards
The EPA's health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) sets a standard for the amount of PFAS chemicals a person can be exposed to over their lifetime without experiencing adverse health effects.
New Jersey went beyond the federal standard and set its limit at 13 ppt.
Michigan has spent at least $23 million to address its PFAS problem since its own action team was assembled in November 2017. In one year, they've managed to test every water system in the state that serves more than 25 people and the water supplies to all schools and daycare centers. The state has also provided filters and bottled water to communities where testing detected contamination.
Michigan has confirmed PFAS contamination in at least 35 sites across the state; its investigation continues and 10 state departments are involved in a collaboration to address the crisis. The state has also begun testing fish and deer for the chemicals, and issued several notices not to consume those animals in regions where they were found to be contaminated with high levels of PFAS.
Michigan's PFAS Action Response Team intends to issue drinking water standards by the end of the year, Carol Isaacs, director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, said at the hearing. In the meantime, they've already set standards for groundwater (70 ppt) and surface water (11-12 ppt), so they can start cleanup initiatives.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has experienced one of the most severe exposures detected in the country because of its proximity to 3M, the manufacturer of Scotchgard. Scotchgard was made with certain strands of PFAS that were discontinued in 2015.
Local scientists refer to Minnesota's exposure as the "Megaplume" because it impacted five public water supplies and more than 1,000 private wells, all of which serve more than 140,000 residents.
Minnesota sued 3M in 2010 and settled in February for $850 million.
Mark Cuker, a lawyer in Eastern Pennsylvania who is handling several cases related to PFAS contamination in the state, urged the state Action Team on Friday to follow rules of common courtesy: When you make a mess, clean it up. Right now, he said, the local communities, rather than the Department of Defense, are paying to clean up the contamination from the former military bases.
But if Pennsylvania creates a more stringent standard for PFAS contamination, like Vermont and New Jersey, the military may be forced to pay. "It's really that simple," he said. "The time is now for action."
Pennsylvania Action Team members called for additional research. "What we know is that there's much more science that we need," said Sarah Boateng, executive deputy secretary with the state Department of Health.
This approach elicited frustration from community members.
"We've heard so much from the Action Team about how much we don't know and how much more research is needed," said community member Phil Baiocchi. "What we do know is that there are filtration systems available that can protect our drinking water. Where I live, the private water supplier brazenly refuses to take action to filter because they don't have to yet. You could change that right away by declaring this a hazardous substance. Please."
Baiocchi was referring to some carbon filtration systems believed to be capable of filtering out PFAS; the systems can be installed at water plants, homes or wells.
Residents demand action
Credit: US EPA
Lisa Cellini, a resident from Horsham Township in Eastern Pennsylvania, lives near a former Navy base contaminated by PFAS. At Friday's hearing, she said she's sick and many people around her are sick. She wants the state set a more stringent standard for what constitutes PFAS contamination, so the Navy will have to do a comprehensive cleanup around the base and provide free blood testing for residents to detect contamination.
The lack of clear regulations is hurting the local economy, according to Mike McGee, the executive director of the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority. The Navy's ability to transfer the former Navy base over for redevelopment has been limited by a lack of guidelines for how to remediate PFAS contamination.
Joanne Stanton, a member of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water outside of Philadelphia, said her son was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 6. Two other women who grew up on the same street also had children with the same brain tumors.
"That's not normal," she said. "Children that have been exposed should be entitled to testing and monitoring to ensure the healthiest future possible."
Lagging other states
At a public meeting in May 2017, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board voted unanimously to accept a petition asking them to set a state-specific maximum contaminant level for PFOA — a particularly dangerous type of PFAS.
The environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network submitted the petition. "But after almost a year of doing nothing, they were telling us they couldn't do it because they didn't have a toxicologist on staff," said member Tracy Carluccio.
Toxicologists research what levels of chemicals are harmful to human health. Pennsylvania (and many other states) generally rely on the EPA to set drinking water standards, so neither the DEP nor the Department of Health have a toxicologist on staff.
The topic wasn't discussed at Friday's hearing beyond a promise from a DEP spokesperson that they'll continue looking for a qualified candidate.
"Pennsylvania is lagging behind other states," Carluccio said during the hearing.
Grosse agreed. After experiencing illness and witnessing deaths at early ages, she is demanding action.
"In 1990, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at 25 years old," she said. "I watched my father die at 52...my sister is sick. All our pets died from cancer and tumors.
"We deserve cleanup and remediation now. After sitting here watching all these states talk about what they've been doing — we're behind."
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource's environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
Correction: A previous version of this story contained a misleading definition of Superfund site.