Bills requiring identification of ‘forever chemical’ sources advancing through legislature

Published in Virginia Mercury February 23, 2024

By: Charlie Paullin

Legislation to set up a state process to identify sources of high levels of PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” is moving swiftly through the General Assembly.

The bills from Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, both passed their own chamber and are on track to get approval from the other, with nearly unanimous votes in their support. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is also backing the proposals. 

“There is a lot of hard work that went into this, and it is an excellent first step in addressing the threats of PFAS to public health in Virginia,” said Betsy Nicholas, vice president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit focused on water quality around the Potomac River.

However, she said, “I would be remiss if I [didn’t say] that we would like to see something a little bit stronger.” 

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a set of chemicals used in numerous everyday and industrial products, including nonstick cookware, clothing and firefighting foam, because of their ability to repel water, stains and corrosion and squelch fires. The inability of many to break down naturally has given them the moniker of forever chemicals and raised concerns about the long-term effects of humans’ exposure to them. 

Some studies have found exposure to PFAS can lead to reproductive problems, developmental effects or delays in children and increased chances of cancer and obesity, among other impacts.

In 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed rules requiring public water systems to monitor for and report measurements of PFAS that exceed a threshold known as a maximum contaminant level. 

McPike and Rasoul’s bills attempt to set up a state system for identifying the sources of PFAS in the event that concentrations exceed the federal maximum level of 4 parts per trillion. (For comparison, 1 part per trillion is the equivalent of one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.) A recent presentation from the Virginia Department of Health stated that PFAS concentrations were above the maximum level in 18 of about 270 sites that were tested in Virginia.

“This is good public policy trying to figure out how to employ our state environmental agency in a prioritized fashion so that we can have the most benefit on this complex problem,” said Chris Pomeroy, an attorney and lobbyist for the Virginia Municipal Drinking Water Association, which represents water systems that serve about three in every four Virginians.

Under the bills, public water systems would report any exceedances of the maximum contaminant level to the Virginia Department of Health, which would then share that information with the Department of Environmental Quality. 

DEQ would then identify potential sources of PFAS in the public water system’s raw — or untreated — water and require those sources to report what chemicals and how much of them they are using. Based on that information, the agency would determine likely “significant” sources of PFAS, which would then be required to report discharges of the chemicals to the department on a quarterly basis. 

The bill would then charge DEQ with identifying “potential regulatory and nonregulatory options for addressing each significant source of PFAS,” with the goal of protecting public health by reducing those sources and minimizing the costs to public water systems. 

Exactly what is considered “significant” would be up to the agency’s discretion, a decision that sparked some discussion in negotiations. 

“Where do you draw that line on significant PFAS chemicals?” Pomeroy asked. “We know these are ubiquitous. What sources are worth testing?”

While earlier versions of McPike’s bill would only have required medium and large water systems, defined as those serving 3,300 people or more, to report exceedances, the most recent versions apply to all systems regardless of size. 

An advisory committee would also be created to review reports on significant sources. Nicholas said that provision gave her “some comfort” in knowing whether monitoring is effective. 

“We’ve built in a few measures to put in some guardrails on DEQ’s review,” said Nichols.

DEQ capacity

McPike and Rasoul’s bills are advancing alongside proposed budget amendments from both the House and Senate that would provide DEQ about $380,000 a year for three positions to identify and monitor PFAS.

The Virginia Department of Planning and Budget has noted that while DEQ has identified 18 watersheds that may require PFAS monitoring, that number could grow by an additional 70 to 80 watersheds, with the complexity of oversight varying from region to region.

“DEQ does not have the expertise to carry out the requirements of the bill,” the department wrote.

Bulova, who chairs a House subcommittee that has been reviewing the bills, said he is eager to broaden Virginia’s efforts to address PFAS. However, he said, there are concerns over the state’s capacity.

“We also have to be cognizant of the limited budget resources that DEQ might be able to bite off,” said Bulova. “So I hate the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

This article was updated with the correct spelling of Betsy Nicholas, vice president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.