Washington DC Update—June 2022
The biggest development in water policy this month was the EPA’s new actions on several of the chemicals in the PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) family of chemicals. PFAS are used to make things nonstick, water repellent, and/or stain-resistant and were used in countless consumer, commercial, and industrial products for decades. These chemicals either slowly degrade or do not degrade at all and can build up in living organisms over time and remain there indefinitely.
The Biden administration has drastically lowered its existing lifetime health advisories for the two best-known types of PFAS, known as PFOS and PFOA—both of which have been phased out of use by US manufacturers. These new advisories are set at “near-zero” levels, below what can be currently measured by existing technology and replacing 2016 guidelines that set them at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). As a practical matter, EPA recommends that utilities take action against the chemicals when they reach levels that can be measured—currently about four ppt. In addition to the actions on PFOS and PFOA, EPA created two new health advisories for two additional PFAS chemicals, known as GenX and PFBS. Health advisories for GenX chemicals were set at 10 parts per trillion, while PFBS was set at 2,000 parts per trillion.
Lifetime health advisories are nonbinding, nonregulatory actions that EPA can take to provide technical information to federal, state, and local agencies for informing their actions, based on health-based hazard concentrations above which action should be taken to reduce exposure. PFAS chemicals are not currently regulated at the federal level, though several states have set their own drinking water limits to address PFAS. EPA announced that they are moving forward with proposing a PFAS national drinking water regulation later this fall as part of their October 2021 PFAS Strategic Roadmap.
Transitioning to the legislative front, it is June of an election year, which means that time is running out for meaningful progress on any legislative goals. Congress is slowly advancing on funding the government past the end of this fiscal year and is just now releasing appropriations legislative text. And while the numbers there appear to be favorable, with topline increases in the hundreds of millions for the State Revolving Funds, digging a bit deeper reveals that large portions of these accounts are earmarks for specific water infrastructure projects, a relatively new phenomenon. EPA has no process in place for how these earmarked projects will be completed, thus it could be years before they begin. These earmarks represent more than $900 million, and what remains in the overall SRF accounts is a decrease from previous years. It is promising that there is more water infrastructure money to be distributed, especially since this money is in addition to the money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), so hopefully Congress will keep earmarks separate in the future and fund the SRFs closer to authorized levels.
Notably absent from funding was the low-income water bill assistance program pilot authorized but unfunded by the BIL. And no further money for the temporary Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (created at the end of 2020 and set to expire in 2023) appears to be coming. The Alliance will continue to work with partners in its network to monitor these issues and educate people and policymakers about the impacts.