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EPA rule limiting certain 'forever chemicals' in drinking water is challenged

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Water utilities and chemical companies are challenging a recent rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that limits certain forever chemicals in the drinking water. NPR's Pien Huang reports on the pushback.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals that are used to waterproof and stain-proof many common products - from raincoats to mascara, couches to cooking pans. They were first made in the 1930s. Erik Olson, with the nonprofit advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, says PFAS chemicals are now everywhere.

ERIK OLSON: Basically, every American is walking around with this stuff in their bodies, and nobody signed up for that.

HUANG: Long-term exposure to PFAS, through drinking, eating and breathing it in, has been linked with liver damage, high cholesterol, certain cancers. It's also been linked with immune problems in children. That's why the EPA set a rule that limits the amount of six common PFAS chemicals in the drinking water. In the two months since the rule was finalized, at least three separate lawsuits have been filed against it. Trade groups representing water utilities and chemical manufacturers, along with the PFAS-making company Chemours, have each filed petitions for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Here's Olson again, with NRDC.

OLSON: To us, it's really disappointing to see the polluters that are spewing this stuff out into the environment, and contaminating the drinking water, joining forces with the water utilities themselves in trying to overturn these rules.

HUANG: In response to requests for comment, the trade groups referred to previously issued statements, alleging that the EPA didn't rely on the best available science and underestimated the cost of the rule. Chemours said the EPA used unsound data and overstepped its authority. The EPA declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. The EPA estimates that the law will save at least $1.5 billion a year in health-related costs, because fewer people will get cancers, heart attacks and strokes from drinking PFAS in their water. The rule is expected to cost $1.5 billion each year to implement. Steph Tai, an environmental law professor at University of Wisconsin in Madison, says the industries on the hook don't want to pay for it.

STEPH TAI: Anything that has high cost to industry is going to be challenged.

HUANG: Tai says challenging an EPA rule is relatively inexpensive to industry. It basically involves getting lawyers to write briefs. So far, the parties have submitted short, three- to five-page petitions, alleging that the EPA rule is arbitrary and capricious and exceeds the agency's authorities under the Safe Drinking Water Act, though they don't explain how. Tai says more substantive arguments should be filed in the coming months.

TAI: Timing-wise, it's probably not going to be decided by any court before the election, and so there is a chance that depending on the administration, they could just withdraw the rule - right? - or they could choose not to defend the rule in court.

HUANG: So even though there's now a regulation limiting the amount of PFAS in drinking water, there are still hurdles to clear before they get taken out. Pien Huang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
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