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EPA official calls designating PFAS as hazardous substances 'huge step'

PORTSMOUTH — An EPA official called the agency’s efforts to designate two of the most common PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law “a huge step.”

David Cash, EPA’s administrator for Region 1, said the designation of PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances means “everywhere in the country is now going to respond the way you guys have responded in the last 10 years here.”

His comments came after he and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, toured the Airfield Interim Mitigation System (AIMS) at the Pease International Tradeport, which is the former home of the Pease Air Force Base, a site of PFAS water contamination that affected thousands, leading to the shutdown of a city well.

“You knew PFAS was a problem here, you knew it was something that had to be addressed in the way that you approached it,” Cash said during a press conference Friday. “What this allows is municipalities, states, private sector to pull the trigger, which then opens up the door to Superfund funding … community engagement, and it requires remedial action.”

The EPA is seeking the designation under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which is better known as Superfund.

“When you think Superfund, you think PCBs, or you think lead, now PFAS is part of that family, that scary family,” Cash said. “But it’s a family that opens up federal funding and federal expertise.”

PFAS contamination at Pease

Cash and Shaheen were joined on Friday's tour by several city officials, including Portsmouth Mayor Deaglan McEachern and City Manager Karen Conard, where they learned about the pump and treatment system that is installed around the Haven well to remove water from the aquifer, treat it and reinject it into the aquifer.

Thousands of people – including children and infants attending two day care facilities at the former Pease Air Force Base – were exposed to PFAS chemicals in the Haven well until it was shut down by the city in 2014.

The water was contaminated by firefighting foam used at the former Pease Air Force Base.

PFAS are man-made chemicals used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and water-repellent fabrics. They also have a range of applications in the aerospace, aviation, automotive and electronics industries, among others.

In addition to being a suspected carcinogen, PFAS exposure can harm childhood development, increase cholesterol levels, hurt the immune system and interfere with human hormones, according to the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Shaheen, Amico praise action

Shaheen, on Friday, said she was “glad the Biden administration is making this a real priority” and added she was “especially heartened by their proposal to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the law, which would trigger meaningful action to get these substances out of our communities.”

Shaheen’s legislation created the first-ever national study on the health effects of exposure to PFAS in drinking water, which also involves a pilot health study at Pease.

Andrea Amico, the co-founder of community group Testing For Pease, said the hazardous substances designation is “a long overdue step that will help communities be able to hold polluters accountable.”

“As I mentioned, we’re very fortunate here, the Air Force has stepped up and paid for all the remediation efforts and we’re very fortunate for that,” Amico said. “In my work as a national advocate I can tell you that it’s not happening at many other sites across the country.”

“And there’s many communities suffering just as badly as us with no treatment facility, with no health studies, with no blood testing and so this hazardous substance designation will have real good consequences for communities across the country who need to hold polluters accountable,” Amico added.