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EPA sets toxins response plan amid criticism from lawmakers



FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2019, file photo, acting Environmental Protection administrator Andrew Wheeler arrives to testify at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The EPA says it is moving forward with a response to a class of long-lasting chemical contaminants, amid criticism from members of Congress and environmentalists that it has not moved aggressively to regulate them. In an interview with ABC News Live, Wheeler calls the chemicals commonly referred to as PFAS, “a very important threat.” (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a plan for dealing with a class of long-lasting chemical contaminants amid complaints from members of Congress and environmentalists that it’s not moved aggressively enough to regulate them.

So-called forever chemicals, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, pose “a very important threat,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview with ABC News Live ahead of a scheduled briefing Thursday in Philadelphia.

Wheeler said the agency was moving forward with the process under the Safe Drinking Water Act that could lead to new safety thresholds for the presence of the chemicals in water, but he did not commit in the interview to setting standards.

The chemicals are found in consumer products ranging from fabrics, rugs and carpets to cooking pots and pans, outdoor gear, shampoo, shaving cream, makeup and even dental floss. Increasing numbers of states have found them seeping into drinking water supplies.

Scientific studies have found “associations” between the chemicals and cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and other health issues.

With the Senate considering whether to confirm him as EPA chief, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have pressed Wheeler to establish mandatory limits for PFAS in public water systems.

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state of West Virginia was one of the first where PFAS contamination was linked to human health problems, said she voted for Wheeler’s appointment in committee earlier this month only after he privately assured her the EPA would tackle the problem.

Capito was one of 20 senators who wrote to Wheeler demanding ceilings on two phased-out types of PFAS chemicals. They pressed Wheeler for other “immediate actions” to protect the public from other versions of the industrial compounds.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also called for legal limits and said if EPA balked, Wheeler “didn’t deserve” to run the agency.

But environmental groups said they expected the EPA response to do little to move the agency forward from its 2018 pledges to tackle PFAS.

Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group said that without firm action and deadlines, he expected the EPA announcement to be no more than a “plan to plan.”

In the ABC interview, Wheeler also indicated that the agency would target communities most affected.

“We need to make sure that every American regardless of ZIP code has safe, reliable drinking water,” he said, adding that “we haven’t slowed down, we’ve actually speeded up the process.”

Betsy Southerland, a former science and technology director in EPA’s Office of Water, told The Associated Press that Wheeler’s plan appeared designed to slow the federal response and encourage states to set their own standards.

That would create more uncertainty about the proper threshold for requiring water treatment for PFAS, said Southerland, who resigned in 2017 to protest the Trump administration’s environmental policies.

“It allows industry and federal agencies that should be actively cleaning up to sit back and say, ‘It’s a big mess, no one knows what the correct number is, so we won’t take any action until the confusion is settled,’” she said.

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