The EPA Is Finally Restricting Some ‘Forever Chemicals.’ Don’t Expect That to Survive a Second Trump Term.

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The EPA Is Finally Restricting Some ‘Forever Chemicals.’ Don’t Expect That to Survive a Second Trump Term.

PFAS are everywhere. Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever chemicals” for their ability to hang around and not break down for eons, have been found in soil, in our bloodstreams, in the sky, in wildlife. And in drinking water.

Used in an absurd array of products to make them resistant to stain or heat, among other things, much of the U.S. is likely drinking at least one of these chemicals in on a daily basis. They are linked to any number of health issues, from cancer to fertility problems and childhood developmental delays. The Environmental Protection Agency, though, is finally taking steps to address the issue.

On Wednesday, the EPA announced the first-ever enforceable regulation on PFAS in drinking water. The regulation covers six individual PFAS chemicals (PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, and HFPO-DA, if you’re curious, along with PFBS when in combination with several of the other five), and will require public water authorities to monitor for and largely eliminate them from the supply. The agency estimates that of 66,000 public utilities in the country, between 6 and 10 percent of them, will need to take action in order to meet the new standards.

Environmental advocates largely hailed the regulation. “Today’s announcement of robust, health protective legal limits on PFAS in tap water will finally give tens of millions of Americans the protection they should have had decades ago,” said the Environmental Working Group’s president Ken Cook, in a statement. “It is the most consequential decision to regulate drinking water in 30 years.”

There are, of course, caveats. The main problem with the regulation is that while the six chemicals in question are among the most studied and most ubiquitous, there are, well, a few other PFAS out there: 15,000 or so of them. Then there is the question of what might happen a year from now.

In Donald Trump’s term as president, the EPA was basically weaponized against itself. It led the way on more than 100 regulatory rollbacks, from mercury emissions restrictions to wetlands protections. And the plan is to continue that assault in term number two.

The Heritage Foundation-led Project 2025 plan, a 900-page guide to an extreme right-wing government takeover should Republicans regain control of the White House, essentially says the new Trump EPA would go back to the old Trump EPA. It would likely shrink in size substantially, deregulation would be the overarching goal of the agency, and its enforcement office would disappear. Though the obvious and primary target would be energy and climate-related regulation, the odds that this momentum on PFAS in drinking water would continue are essentially zero.

The chemicals make one appearance in Project 2025’s EPA chapter, though not in a section dedicated to the Office of Water (which is primarily concerned with gutting the Waters of the United States rule, a project the Supreme Court already took a big crack at). Instead, in a section on the Superfund hazardous cleanup program, the plan suggests revising groundwater regulations to reflect the challenges of “omnipresent contaminants” like PFAS, and, ominously: “Revisit the designation of PFAS chemicals as ‘hazardous substances'” under the Superfund law.

In general, the success of environmental regulations eventually lead dumb or malevolent people to insist they are not necessary. The rivers aren’t on fire now, so why are we stopping companies from dumping gasoline into them? That message is generally rolled out in service of private companies who don’t want to spend money to comply with a given regulation, but it spreads like a slime mold into essentially every corner of conservative attempts at governance. The new PFAS rule requires public water utilities to complete monitoring within three years, and implement solutions if they are found within five — so, around the length of the next presidential term. If it’s a Trump term, the forever chemicals likely aren’t going anywhere.

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