New EPA PFAS Designations Will Spur Contamination Cleanups

The EPA has designated PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under CERCLA, which requires polluters to fund cleanup of contaminated sites 


The Environmental Protection Agency today designated two per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) or Superfund law, which will make it easier to clean up contaminated sites and recover costs from polluters.

Even at the lowest exposure levels, PFAS are extremely toxic. They accumulate in the human body, causing increased risks of cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, and other severe health effects. Designating PFAS hazardous substances under CERCLA will necessarily clean up PFAS-contaminated environments and hold polluters accountable.

“It just got a lot harder for Chemours, Dow, and other polluters to pass the costs of their PFAS releases off on impacted communities and taxpayers,” said Earthjustice Attorney Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz. “These designations will give PFAS-contaminated sites the attention they deserve, and we support EPA’s plans to ensure the parties most responsible for such contamination bear the costs of cleaning it up.”

The EPA’s final rule designates PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances: the first PFAS to be regulated under the Superfund law.  This designation mandates new reporting requirements for facilities that release PFOA and PFOS into the environment and will provide a new legal basis for holding companies and government agencies accountable for resulting clean-up costs, like the Department of Defense, which released significant amounts of PFOA and PFOS for decades. It will also enable EPA to issue orders requiring the remediation of PFAS-contaminated sites.

“After decades of industry using and disposing PFOA and PFOS, EPA can now accelerate cleanups of the most contaminated sites,” said Earthjustice Legislative Counsel Christine Santillana. “It’s highly encouraging to see EPA initiate this designation and gives hope to impacted communities that their health will be better protected.”

This new designation comes shortly after the EPA finalized its first-ever drinking water standards for six PFAS.  We applaud the agency’s commitment to its PFAS Strategic Roadmap and encourage EPA to remain emboldened and take a class-based approach to fully protect public health from these ‘forever chemicals’. See Earthjustice’s online summary and tracker of EPA’s PFAS roadmap.

PFOA and PFOS were created in the 1940s and, for decades, were widely used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam. While they have been largely phased out of production in the U.S. due to links to cancers and other harms, they continue to be imported into consumer products and be produced as byproducts. Companies like 3M and Dupont manufactured and released PFOA and PFOS for much of the 20th century despite knowing these chemicals were harmful. The Department of Defense also polluted communities by extensively using PFAS-based firefighting foam during training exercises. More than 95% of the U.S. population has PFAS in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. See a map of PFAS superfund locations across the country.

Firefighters wade through a thick layer of foam while cleaning up after a fire on a city street
Firefighters walk through foam used to extinguish a four alarm fire in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston in 2018. Firefighting foam is one source of PFAS contamination in the environment. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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