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Encouraging signs emerge from EPA listening session

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A man works at the carbon adsorption area of the Fayetteville Works plant near the Cape Fear River in June. A North Carolina science panel says state health officials were right to set a much lower health target for GenX, a little-studied industrial chemical found in drinking water than the goal the manufacturer proposed.

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

We were heartened and encouraged by what we saw and heard at an EPA listening session in Fayetteville earlier this month. After all we’d heard about the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, it was a different song in a crowded meeting room at the Crown Coliseum. Here were the leaders of the EPA’s key programs, telling us what steps they were taking to protect residents of the Cape Fear River Basin from the emerging contaminants known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

It appears they will be steps of substance and significance, not window dressing. We saw that there is already a productive partnership between the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality, whose efforts in dealing with GenX and related PFAS chemicals have been frustrated by state lawmakers who have refused many of the agency’s funding requests. But the EPA has stepped in and assisted in many areas of the GenX response. EPA officials said that cooperation would continue.

And we were pleased to hear that the federal regulators are working to establish realistic safety guidelines for GenX and other PFAS chemicals. The EPA’s “toxicity value” for GenX should be announced by the end of next month. The agency is also working on guidelines for PFAS cleanups in areas where there are dangerous concentrations of it. The chemicals, widely used in processes as divergent as waterproof clothing, cookware coatings and firefighting foam, are prevalent in the environment around the country, but especially concentrated in a few locations — including here in the Cape Fear region.

What we saw last Tuesday in Fayetteville was a remarkable coalition of federal and state environmental officials who came together to outline action already underway against GenX and other PFAS chemicals, including specific steps to protect residents here whose air, water and land have become polluted by the chemicals.

But then, we’re increasingly seeing two EPAs, the one whose officials visited Fayetteville and the one whose politically appointed leaders may still be working to undermine the agency’s responses to problems like ours. We saw that later last week, as N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein joined 14 other state attorneys general in a letter challenging a draft EPA policy that would prevent the EPA from using any scientific studies — even peer-reviewed work — that haven’t been made available to the public in their entirety. Stein said last week that the policy would force the EPA “to ignore many key health studies, since legally required confidentiality protections prevent making those studies’ data public.”

The policy, developed on the watch of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, is another step by this administration to ignore science and scientific advice whenever it conflicts with political agendas.

The letter was sent to Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who is running the EPA in the wake of Pruitt’s June resignation. Pruitt was a one-man scandal generator who faced numerous ethics complaints and serious questions about his dealings with many pollution-generating industries. The 33-page letter from the attorneys general concludes that this is Wheeler’s opportunity to take a better path. “We urge the EPA to jettison this tainted vestige of prior leadership and restore public confidence in the agency’s commitment to its core mission, and we stand ready to pursue legal remedies should the EPA persist in this misguided effort.”

In a region beset with problems arising from GenX and related PFAS compounds, as well as water contaminated by chemicals like the carcinogenic 1,4 dioxane, the EPA’s next steps will be telling — and of critical importance to the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of residents of the Cape Fear Basin, some of whom have been drinking PFAS-contaminated water for as long as four decades.

In the next few months, as the EPA releases its guidelines for PFAS and GenX safety and cleanup, we’ll know which version of the agency — the professional or the political — is looking out for us.

The Fayetteville Observer

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