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Federal PFAS regulations give Alabama Riverkeepers support

In the fight against forever chemicals, enforceable limits could save our rivers.

PFAS text in polluted soil
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Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency released new formal standards and limits in drinking water for the class of man-made chemicals known as PFAS. PFAS, more commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” are often disposed of in bodies of water by large plants and manufacturers.

The EPA slashed the previous standard set in 2016 from 60 parts per trillion, which was voluntary to uphold, down to 4 parts per trillion which will be legally enforceable. To help combat PFAS in drinking water, the EPA also announced $1 billion in funding to be distributed to regions across the country, assisting in PFAS testing and treatment at public water treatment facilities and helping owners of private wells with contamination.

The Alabama Riverkeepers have been at the forefront of the PFAS battle in Alabama, working to inform the public about the chemicals, testing local riverways and filing lawsuits against groups who knowingly pollute. With federal regulations in place, the Riverkeepers are ready to hold regulators and manufacturers accountable.

“It comes down to chemical manufacturers and the lack of willingness of regulators to do something about them and have let this go on for decades,” said Nelson Brooke, a Blackwarrior Riverkeeper. “It’s gotten to the point where these PFAS compounds are in so many consumer products in our everyday lives. Every single one of us has touched them.”

PFAS are often used to make certain consumer goods either water-, stain- or grease-resistant. The most notable PFAS chemical presence is in Decatur, Alabama, where 3M recently had to pay a $98 million settlement.

“For drinking water, Decatur was already on the path of getting their water treated. Now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with clarity about regulatory limits and requirements that everybody will have to be shooting for,” said Brooke.

The process of removing PFAS from water comes down to having the resources. Drinking water providers will have a 3-year period to monitor the initial presence of these chemicals and then must notify consumers of their levels. If these levels exceed the limitations, systems must implement solutions to reduce the PFAS levels within five years.

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“It was a little bit overwhelming until it was clear that there was a horizon for these regulations. Knowing how awful these chemicals are and that there didn’t seem to be an understanding of when something was going to be done about it,” said Brooke. “Now we’ve just got to roll up our sleeves and get to work getting these materials out of our environment.”

Now that these materials are classified as hazardous, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has the regulatory authority over facilities that discharge PFAS. Some states have even made regulations banning the production of the chemicals altogether.

“Going forward, having actual numbers so we can say that what we find is over what’s allowed, that triggers action. Up until now, there hasn’t been a mechanism in place for the stoppage of it or to get it cleaned up,” said Brooke. “That’s all going to be changing.”

Mary Claire is a reporting intern.

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