Taken at face value, the White House is right to assert that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and not Congress, should be taking the lead on regulating so-called “forever chemicals” in our drinking water.
The problem is, what EPA are they talking about?
The agency as we know it today is not moving fast to limit the chemicals used in firefighting foam and non-stick cookware from mixing in public drinking water, having blown its own deadline to do so. And you’d be forgiven your skepticism that it will speed up its efforts anytime soon. The EPA in the Trump era is decidedly less interested in pushing new regulations, across a variety of areas, than it has been under previous Republican or Democratic administrations.
So, a bill that just cleared the House of Representatives calling for tighter rules on chemicals associated with heightened cancer risk, high cholesterol and problem pregnancies should get a quick hearing and vote in the Senate, and a signature by President Donald Trump — even though the latter is unlikely. Trump has threatened a veto in light of his qualms with Congress taking over EPA territory.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Boston and Concord should assume nothing will happen in Washington and hurry their own efforts to address the pre- and perfluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever chemicals” because of how long their traces linger in the human body.
Leaders in both states have already taken steps to adopt limits on the chemicals that are much stricter than the EPA’s current guidance.
In Massachusetts, the Baker administration wants not only tighter restrictions but regular tests of water sources and a $24 million fund to help cities and towns detect the chemicals. In New Hampshire, new limits set in place last fall are even stricter than those proposed in Massachusetts, though they’ve been challenged in court. Concord is now working on legislation that would shore up those rules.
Questions are being raised on both sides of the border about what all of this could mean in terms of cost, especially as tests reveal the presence of these persistent chemicals. The price tag on clean water is about to get much larger.
Weigh that against the uncertainty of drinking water that may or may not be laced with PFAS leaching from nearby factories and military bases. Whoever gets a handle on this problem — be it our statehouses, Congress or the EPA — is not as important as the certainty that some agency or entity is confronting this risk.