When an Action Plan Isn’t

No one is happy with E.P.A. on drinking water

Elected officials and environmental groups criticized a federal Environmental Protection Agency action plan that postponed the setting of drinking water standards for a group of synthetic chemicals including those that contaminated residential wells in Wainscott and are thought to have originated in and around East Hampton Airport.

The Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Action Plan, issued last Thursday, said that the E.P.A. “heard clearly the public’s desire for immediate action to address potential human health and economic impacts from PFAS in the environment,” according to the document. Yet the agency will delay setting drinking water standards for a year or more.

Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS, the action plan states, given the chemicals’ widespread use in consumer and industrial products including firefighting foam, stain and water-resistant coatings, food packaging, and cleaners, as well as their persistence in the environment. The chemicals have been linked to cancers, thyroid problems, and serious complications of pregnancy.

In October 2017, Suffolk County Health Department officials testing water from private wells in the area around East Hampton Airport found perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in more than 150 residential wells. The discovery led the town board to declare a state of emergency, and then to the establishment of a water supply district. That action paved the way for the installation of approximately 45,000 feet of water main in Wainscott to provide public water to an area including more than 500 residential properties.

The town also commenced litigation against more than a dozen manufacturers of firefighting foam and other products, as well as East Hampton Village and the Bridgehampton Fire District to help offset the costs incurred to clean up the contamination.

In 2016, President Obama’s E.P.A. issued a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for individual and combined PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. Last year, the online magazine Politico reported that the E.P.A. and the Trump administration sought to block publication of a federal health study on water contamination after an official warned of a public relations nightmare.” The study, Politico reported, would show that PFAS endanger human health starting at a far lower level than the E.P.A.’s 2016 advisory.

Councilman Jeff Bragman, the town board’s liaison to the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee, called the E.P.A.’s action plan “an inaction plan.” Also disheartening, he said yesterday, was the fact that “they’re shocked — shocked! — to find that this is a national problem.”

The chemicals have been in use for decades, he said, “and E.P.A. and other states have long records of going after 3M and DuPont,” manufacturers of products containing the chemicals, “over this. It really calls for immediate action. I have no confidence that in this administration they will act as quickly as, probably, the career E.P.A. people would like.”

The hazard posed by PFOS and PFOA, Mr. Bragman said, is why he pressed the town board to assist Wainscott property owners in the installation of home filtration systems. “These chemicals are serious,” he said. “They present a serious health threat. We had to take every step possible to prevent exposure.”

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby agreed that the E.P.A. action plan is indicative of the present federal government. “Regulation is not something this particular leadership wants to do,” she said on Tuesday. “In fact, they tout the fact that for every regulation they have, they’ve taken 20 away. . . . This is very concerning, that they’re not considering our health.”

Elsewhere, condemnation of the E.P.A.’s action plan was swift. Liz Moran, the environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement last Thursday that “Yet again, E.P.A. has shown that the agency is no longer serious about protecting public health. E.P.A. already has everything it needs to begin a rulemaking to set an enforceable drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, but still won’t commit to taking action.”

Maureen Cunningham, senior director for clean water for Environmental Advocates of New York, also issued a statement last Thursday. “Today, E.P.A. could have protected people’s health by announcing a plan to strongly and swiftly regulate PFOA and PFOS,” it said. “Instead, they chose a path that will lead to years of bureaucratic red tape, leaving our most vulnerable populations exposed to these dangerous chemicals.”

She and Ms. Moran encouraged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Department of Health to immediately regulate the chemicals in drinking water.

State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle was also among elected officials critical of the E.P.A., calling on the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, to “immediately implement strict limits on PFOA and PFOS levels in drinking water,” according to a statement issued by Senate Republicans.

“There have been detections of PFOA and PFOS in multiple locations on the East End of Long Island,” Mr. LaValle said. “It is time that New York State takes the lead role in protecting our residents’ drinking water.”