The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a final rule that classifies two types of “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances under the Superfund statute, a move that EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said "will allow EPA to address more contaminated sites, take earlier action and expedite cleanups, all while ensuring polluters pay for the costs to clean up pollution threatening the health of communities."

The action, announced April 19, applies to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two substances that are a subset of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, chemicals. They are called "forever" chemicals because they are so long-lasting. According to the EPA, they have been linked to cancers as well as damage to the liver and heart, among other health impacts. 

The EPA action was praised by environmental groups and their supporters in Congress. But it also has sparked criticism from others on Capitol Hill and particularly deep worries among drinking-water and wastewater treatment organizations. They fear that it will leave them open to lawsuits from PFA producers and stick the water systems with the costs of cleanups.

Recognizing water systems’ views, EPA also issued a PFAS Enforcement Discretion and Settlement Policy under CERCLA memo. CERCLA refers to the Superfund law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, enacted in 1980.

The memo from David M. Uhlmann, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, states that EPA does not intend to pursue certain entities, including “community water systems and publicly owned treatment works, municipal separate storm sewer systems, publicly owned/operated municipal solid waste landfills, publicly owned airports and local fire departments and farms where biosolids are applied to the land.

“EPA will focus on holding accountable those parties that have played a significant role in releasing or exacerbating the spread of PFAS into the environment, such as those who have manufactured PFAS or used PFAS in the manufacturing process, and other industrial parties," said the memo. EPA is referring to those entities as major potentially responsible parties, or PRPs. 

But the memo didn't fully convince water organizations. 

Several groups, who have formed the Water Coalition Against PFAS, said in a joint statement, "The final rule from EPA puts water systems at risk, will translate to higher costs for ratepayers and opens water systems up to costly litigation."

The coalition said the memo "shows that the agency does not believe that water systems are the problem, but the reality of this final rule means that utilities will face increased operational  costs and uncertainties, and most worrisome, will be the target of endless litigation from the manufacturers of PFAS."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the Environment and Public Works Committee's top Republican, sides with the water coalition. She said that EPA's action marks the first time it has designated a substance as hazardous under the Superfund statute without first making that designation under another environmental law.

EPA's action  is "unprecedented" and "puts local communities and ratepayers on the hook for PFAS contamination they had nothing to do with in the first place," Capito said.

Capito and the water coalition are calling for a remedy from Congress.

But EPA has powerful congressional friends and support from environmental advocacy groups. The Senate environment committee's chairman, Tom Carper (D-Del.), welcomed the EPA’s action, which he called “important and necessary.” The rule is “the first step toward holding the actual polluters accountable,” Carper said.

"There is no safe level of exposure to PFAS chemicals, said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club's legislative director. But Pierce said EPA is taking "critical steps to protect public health." Besides the hazardous-materials designation, she also pointed to EPA's recently announced  standard for PFAS levels in water and newly released funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The final rule will take effect 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register.