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Senators ask new EPA head to act on PFAS contamination

PORTSMOUTH -- U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen are calling for the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to “understand and address the PFAS contamination problem facing the nation.”

Hassan and Shaheen state in their letter sent Thursday to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler that “PFAS chemicals have been associated with birth defects, various forms of cancers and immune system dysfunction.”

Wheeler replaced the embattled Scott Pruitt, who resigned last week.

PFAS are man-made chemicals used in a wide variety of products and are very persistent in the environment and in human bodies.

Thousands of people working at Pease International Tradeport, along with children and infants who attended two day-care centers there, were exposed to multiple PFAS chemicals from contaminated water in the city-owned Haven well. Officials believe the PFAS came from firefighting foam used at the former Air Force base, which is a Superfund cleanup site. Portsmouth shut down the well in May 2014 after the Air Force found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, in the well.

The EPA in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. It has not set any other health advisories for the thousands of other PFAS chemicals, which advocates suspect are no less dangerous than PFOS and PFOA. Shaheen and Hassan point to that fact in their letter and state “there is a critical need to better understand and address any potential adverse health effects these contaminants may have on our communities and to continue evaluating existing standards.”

They pushed Pruitt on several occasions to address PFAS contamination in communities across America, and added they are “deeply troubled by reports that EPA officials intervened in order to delay the release of toxicological studies conducted by the ... Agency For Toxic Substances And Disease Registry concerning the health effects of four PFAS chemicals.”

That study determined PFAS chemicals can be dangerous to humans at much lower levels than the EPA has acknowledged.

“EPA must reassure Americans that the agency’s decisions are in their best interest and not a result of industry pressure or political influence,” the two U.S. senators from New Hampshire wrote.

They also stated “it is imperative that the change in leadership at the EPA does not interrupt the agency’s efforts to protect our citizens from further contamination, efforts that still need to be strengthened, expanded and accelerated.” They asked Wheeler to provide a “clear description of how you plan to improve the EPA’s response to PFAS contamination” and “a description of what is being done to advance solutions to this challenge that considers the entire class of PFAS and not just individual chemicals.”

Shaheen included an amendment in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act, which created the first-ever national study on the impacts of PFAS exposure in drinking water. She later secured funding to pay for the study and pushed along with Hassan to have the Pease community included in the study. Shaheen announced in May with the ATSDR that Pease will serve as the model site for the national health study.

Hassan also co-sponsored Shaheen’s Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act, which creates an interagency task force to improve federal coordination on emerging contaminants and directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a federal research strategy to improve identification, analysis and treatment methods for contaminants.

Testing for Pease co-founder Andrea Amico of Portsmouth commended the senators for their letter. She acknowledged she is concerned the change in leadership could slow the EPA’s work on PFAS contamination, but urged the agency to “continue the momentum by taking action and rolling out a PFAS management plan.”

She also said when she attended a PFAS national conference in Washington, D.C., “Andrew Wheeler was present on Day 1 and sat in the front row for the entire day. I know he’s aware of the concerns and aware of the issues.”

Amico called for the EPA to continue its plans to hold regional meetings “across the country at impacted communities so they can continue to hear from people exposed to PFAS and how its impacted their lives.” The EPA held its first regional meeting in Exeter in late June.