Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York visited the Quogue Wildlife Refuge on Friday to announce proposed legislation that would regulate perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — of a class of chemicals known as PFAS — which have been determined to be dangerous at any level of exposure.
Known as “forever chemicals,” “They don’t break down by themselves in the environment,” Senator Gillibrand said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate their discharge into water bodies under the Clean Water Act, so companies that manufacture products using PFAS chemicals — including nonstick cookware, water repellent in clothing, and cosmetics — can release them into federally regulated waters. Along with endangering public health, this requires costly cleanup and treatment.
Because of their prevalence, the senator said Friday, “these chemicals can seep into our surface water and groundwater and continue to threaten the health of all Americans. I think I read a study where it said every American has some PFAS in their blood. . . . It’s not right.”
Concern about PFAS, which can cause serious health problems including cancer and liver and thyroid damage, and may negatively impact fetuses, breastfed infants, and immune systems, has been high in East Hampton Town since 2017, when Suffolk County Health Department officials discovered two kinds of PFAS in private wells in the area of the East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott at levels in excess of the E.P.A.’s acceptable levels for lifetime exposure. The suspected source is firefighting foam that was used and stored there.
Forty-seven of the airport’s 570 acres were added to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Registry of Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal, or Superfund, sites.
PFAS contamination has been detected “in all 50 states, all over the world, and is in the drinking and groundwater of more than 2,800 sites in the United States,” she said. “So this is a problem not just for the residents here in Quogue, but also for our animals, plants, and everybody that calls this place home.”
On Friday, she announced the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act of 2023, which would regulate PFAS chemicals under the Clean Water Act by establishing effluent regulations, guidelines, standards, and monitoring requirements for industrial sources that discharge them into waterways. The bill would require the E.P.A. to develop water quality criteria under the Clean Water Act for all measurable PFAS or classes of PFAS within three years.
The E.P.A. would also be required to establish effluent limitations guidelines and standards for eight “priority” industry categories for all measurable PFAS or classes of PFAS on various timelines: by June 30, 2024, for organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers, electroplating, and metal finishing; by June 30, 2025, for textile mills and landfills, and by Dec. 31, 2026, for leather tanning and finishing, paint reformulating, and plastics molding and forming.
The Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act would mandate that the E.P.A. establish PFAS monitoring requirements for three other industry categories: pulp, paper, and paperboard; electrical and electronic components, and airports, and make a determination on developing effluent limitation guidelines and standards for these categories by Dec. 31, 2024. It would also direct the E.P.A. to award grants to publicly owned sewage treatment plants to help them carry out pretreatment programs that address PFAS contamination and further monitor, assess, or analyze local sources of PFAS. The act would authorize $200 million for these grants for each of the fiscal years 2024 through 2028. An additional $12 million would be authorized for each of fiscal years 2024 through 2026 to help the E.P.A. implement the bill.
The senator introduced similar legislation last year, but no action was taken on it. The bill, she said, will be reintroduced in September with the goal of passing it during the 118th Congress, which ends on Jan. 3, 2025, “and we’ll work on some bipartisan support. PFAS, as you know, affects people everywhere — red places, blue places, it’s indiscriminate — so I’m going to try to find a strong Republican leader to help me get this through Congress.”
She spoke alongside Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and Louise Harrison of Save the Sound, all of whom also addressed the danger PFAS pose to human and nonhuman health.
An effort to remediate PFAS contamination of groundwater is underway at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, and, as happened in Wainscott, additional water mains were added in East Quogue to allow residents to connect to public water after their wells tested positive for PFAS contamination. “We have to spend an awful lot of money to try to remove these chemicals,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “They’re very hard to remove. We’re doing the best we can with limited resources, but it’s very important to us that we protect public health and safety. We need people fighting on a much bigger level than the local level.”
“Every congressional representative on Long Island has PFAS in their district, in their drinking water,” Ms. Esposito said. “So it makes good sense and good politics for them to cosponsor a bill in the House.” She said that “PFAS chemicals represent the greatest water quality challenge of our generation. These toxic chemicals have become ubiquitous in our water supplies: drinking water, surface waters, rivers, lakes, and streams.”
“We on Long Island need to be super careful about what goes into the ground,” Ms. Harrison said, “because we drink groundwater and our groundwater goes into our waterways where we swim and fish.” PFAS bio-accumulate in estuaries, she said. “It goes up through the food web, and when we eat fish, our bodies get more PFAS. . . . We can do better, and our industries need to take responsibility for exposing us to contamination.”
Ultimately, Ms. Harrison said, “we need to turn off the tap and eliminate these harmful chemicals. For now, let’s pass this legislation, do the testing, write the guidelines, get the cleanup underway as soon as possible, and then find ways to stop producing these chemicals altogether.”
“We may be getting to a point,” Ms. Gillibrand said, “where the science is so clear that we might not have to have opposition” from industry “since we are creating reasonable timelines and we are doing it industry by industry. . . . We’re going to go piece by piece until it’s done.”