Don’t Burn After Reading
What happens when you try to burn a toxic chemical that’s designed not to burn?
Washington state recently found out when trying to get rid of its supply of PFAS. Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, this class of toxic chemicals is found in everyday household items like nonstick cookware and clothing that “wicks” away water. Today, PFAS are so ubiquitous that they can be found in the blood of almost every person in the United States, with drinking water as a common route of exposure.
PFAS leech into water supplies through several sources, including industrial discharges and firefighting foam. In Washington, state regulators planned to burn the state’s supply of PFAS-laced firefighting foam. But burning PFAS doesn’t eliminate the risks that PFAS pose. Instead, doing so can create new PFAS and other hazardous chemicals that are released into the air. Communities surrounding incinerators — including many communities of color that are already exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution — are now facing a new threat to their air because of the rush to burn these “forever chemicals.”
Under legal pressure from Earthjustice and partners like Sierra Club, Washington is now re-evaluating this dangerous plan and forcing regulators to assess its environmental impacts. This will be the first ever environmental impact statement done for a state or federal PFAS disposal project — with the results for anyone, including the public and courtroom judges, to see.
In a separate but related lawsuit, Earthjustice is suing the federal government over its own plan to burn PFAS foam, on behalf of national organizations and local impacted communities. These lawsuits are part of a broader effort to reduce toxic chemical exposure, hold polluters accountable, and promote healthier communities.
For decades, the U.S. military has used firefighting foam containing PFAS, which are notoriously fire resistant, in training exercises at hundreds of bases around the world.
Today, PFAS contamination is suspected to affect the groundwater beneath approximately 600 military sites and the communities that surround them. The problem has grown so significant that the federal government could no longer ignore it. But the way they chose to address the problem — by incinerating millions of gallons of the nearly un-burnable foam — only makes it worse. Rather than eliminating the threat, burning the foam can unleash PFAS and other harmful chemicals into the air around nearby communities.
The Defense Department’s plan to burn PFAS-laced firefighting foam first came to light in an investigative report by The Intercept. Later, more information came out in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and communities surrounding hazardous waste incinerators in East Liverpool, Ohio; Port Arthur, Texas; and the Metro-East region of southwestern Illinois.
As a result of the attention generated by that suit, two of the Defense Department’s PFAS incineration contracts have already been cancelled, and legislation banning the practice has been enacted or introduced in multiple states.
While the federal lawsuit played out, Earthjustice turned its attention to Washington, where regulators were proposing to ship PFAS foam to Utah for incineration. However, the state failed to assess the environmental impacts of burning PFAS, which is required by law.
Working with the Sierra Club, Earthjustice submitted comments to the Washington Department of Ecology describing the associated risks and urging the state to conduct a proper environmental review. In 2021, the state agreed to do just that, stating that “public comments raised several issues that led [regulators] to believe the current project involves unique and unknown risks to the environment, as well as downwind communities.”
The state’s environmental impact statement is underway and is expected to take 12 to 18 months to complete. In the meantime, local fire departments are required to safely store their PFAS foam.
Elsewhere around the country, Earthjustice is pushing for stronger federal legislation to address PFAS contamination; pressing for stronger implementation of state PFAS laws; and securing medical monitoring for communitiesimpacted by PFAS contamination. Earthjustice has also petitioned the EPA to close loopholes through which hundreds of new PFAS have been approved.
Tackling this multi-faceted problem requires multi-faceted solutions, not corner-cutting that makes the problem even worse. Earthjustice is demonstrating what this looks like. In New York, for example, Earthjustice advocacy helped achieve a groundbreaking drinking water standard that requires regulators to test for and remove two common PFAS chemicals. A year later, the New York state legislature passed a bill that expands testing for toxic chemicals such as PFAS in drinking water.
With your support, we can eliminate the threat of PFAS in every U.S. community. Tell the EPA you want total protection from PFAS.