WASHINGTON, DC — Catherine McCabe, new commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, had a tongue-in-cheek question for the PFAS panel.

Should New Jersey set drinking water standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — which the state is poised to roll out — or wait years for the federal government to establish nationwide standards for the seemingly ubiquitous pollutants.

The panel and audience laughed at the question, which sliced to the heart of the Environmental Protection Agency’s national PFAS Summit on May 22 in Washington, DC., where 200 people representing 38 state governments, industry, tribes, environmental groups and federal agencies convened for a daylong conference.

Embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced at the summit outset that “the process needs to begin” to set a nationwide maximum contaminant level (MCL) in drinking water for PFOS and PFOA, two very problematic PFAS compounds.

But states with PFAS drinking water contamination like New York and New Jersey aren’t interested in waiting the decade or more one panelist estimated it could take to set new nationwide standards. And many speakers and audience members expressed interest in seeing more than just two PFAS compounds regulated.

There are thousands of PFAS chemicals in use worldwide and many more than just PFOS and PFOA contaminating water supplies.

New Jersey is ready with rules for three: PFOA, PFOS and PFNA.

“We can’t wait to move forward,” said McCabe afterwards, citing the time it would take EPA — where she is former acting administrator — to establish standards for what PFAS levels are safe to drink. “Clearly, it’s in the nature of years.”

Why a ‘safe’ PFAS level in drinking water is so ambiguous

Setting an MCL for PFAS was among several regulatory goals Pruitt announced Tuesday during a highly-technical conference that grabbed national headlines after EPA security guard roughly shoved an Associated Press reporter seeking access to the summit, generating backlash among news outlets the EPA press office denied entrance.

The 7:35 a.m. incident, witnessed by MLive, quickly overshadowed the conference subject matter online and helped prod EPA staff members to re-open the conference to reporters who had only been allowed in for the first hour as well as other news outlets.

Summit access was a contentious issue Tuesday and in the lead up to the gathering, as community groups impacted by PFAS contamination wondered angrily why they were shut out. The EPA eventually allowed Andrea Amico of Portsmouth, N.H., to attend. Amico created the Testing For Pease group to bring attention to PFAS drinking water contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base.

Inside the summit room, panels comprised of mostly regulators talked PFAS in minutiae, guided in part by interactive polling responses displayed as word clouds on a projector.

In a morning keynote address, Pruitt called PFAS contamination a “national priority,” noting the persistence and durability of the manmade contaminants — sometimes called “forever chemicals” — in the environment, where they move quickly through groundwater, bio-accumulate up the food chain, but do not naturally breakdown.

The EPA is developing “groundwater cleanup recommendation” this fall for PFOS and PFOA at contaminated sites around the country, and Pruitt said the agency may add them to the list of hazardous substances regulated under the federal Superfund law.

The EPA will visit states with PFAS-impacted drinking water like Michigan, New Hampshire and Colorado this summer as it drafts a national PFAS management plan, he said.

Michigan, which has 31 known PFAS contamination sites, was represented at the conference by Department of Environmental Quality director Heidi Grether and Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) chief Carol Isaacs.

“We look forward to working with our federal partners and stakeholders to achieve the outcomes,” Pruitt said.

Michigan will test for PFAS in 1,380 water systems, 460 schools

Jessica Bowman with the American Chemistry Council said companies which manufacture PFAS chemicals want to be “instructive stakeholders” in that process during a presentation stressing the difference between “legacy PFAS,” or longer carbon-chain molecules like PFOS and PFOA, and “today’s PFAS,” which have shorter chains and are supposedly safer.

The ACC supports a “risk-based approach” to regulating PFAS that “recognizes the differences” between chemistries, she said.

Whether those replacement chemicals are actually safer is an open question, said Brandon Kernen, with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Shorter carbon chain chemicals could spread more easily in the environment. There are also little known about the toxicity of thousands of newer PFAS chemicals.

“There’s a lot more questions than answers,” Kernen said.

“I have yet to see any information that says these chemicals are safer to drink in your water.”

Ansje Miller from the Center for Environmental Health, who lives in North Carolina where the Cape Fear River has been contaminated by a PFOA replacement fluoropolymer called GenX made by DuPont spinoff company Chemours, said she noted a consensus among the room that regulating PFAS chemicals individually was a fool’s errand.

That PFAS should be regulated as a class “almost seemed universal.”

The wide-ranging discussion on PFAS regulation did not shy away from the elephant in the room — a pending Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) report on draft toxicological profiles for PFOS, PFOA, PFNA and PFHxS, the latter of which is closely associated with PFAS-laden firefighting foam and has the longest half-life in the human body of any PFAS compound.

Patrick Breysse, ATSDR director, declined to say when the report would be released, saying the agency was “working aggressively” toward that, but was first engaged in developing “consistent messaging” with the Pentagon and EPA.

“We’re committed to making sure everyone is on the same page.”

According to emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists through the Freedom of Information Act, the ATSDR is poised to recommend a safety level for PFAS exposure in drinking water that’s six times lower than the current EPA benchmark guiding federal and state contamination response efforts in Michigan and elsewhere.

The ATSDR thinks the “minimal risk level” should be dropped to less than 12 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for exposure to some PFAS compounds in drinking water. The current EPA health advisory level for PFOS and PFOA is 70-ppt, a guidance level set in 2016.

Adequacy of the 70-ppt benchmark has been the subject of substantial debate, with regulators and polluters generally loathe to endorse lower levels and public health advocates pointing to new studies calling its effectiveness into question.

McCabe noted that New Jersey’s pending MCLs for PFAS were very close to the levels ATSDR is reportedly considering.

Erik Olson, health director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the NRDC is recommending the state of New York develop PFAS standards in the 4 to 10-ppt range.

“These numbers weren’t meant to be bright lines,” Breysse said, noting that the study of PFAS compounds is evolving rapidly and more is learned every day. He said the goal is to develop target risk levels that are set progressively lower over time.