Almost 100 extra workers on a $6.7 billion tunnel project have lost their jobs as the fight over who pays landfill fees continues to rage.
Australian Workers’ Union Victorian branch secretary Ben Davis said the West Gate tunnel project workers lost their jobs on Wednesday.
“They were made redundant today. About two-thirds of them were white collar and 25 were construction workers,” Mr Davis told AAP.
“The state of uncertainty over PFAS-contaminated soil has led to another round of job losses.
“There needs to be a resolution on where to transport and store the PFAS-contaminated soil – it needs to be sorted now.”
For every day this dispute drags on, Mr Davis said, more jobs could be lost.
“The three parties need to roll up their sleeves. Big companies are using workers’ jobs as cannon fodder and it’s disgusting,” he said.
The workers are caught in a fight linked to cost increases and a landfill levy for soil stored along parts of the West Gate Freeway.
The builders have permits from the state’s environment watchdog to take some of that soil to landfill but have chosen not to, Mr Davis said.
Toll giant Transurban, which is leading the construction of the tunnel, said the CPB John Holland Joint Venture has options to keep staff on.
“We’re extremely disappointed to learn that despite our efforts to support a path forward on the project, they’re continuing to make changes to their workforce,” a company spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
Companies CPB and John Holland reportedly told the state government up to 600 project workers could be cut by the end of June.
Earlier this month about 100-120 workers on the project were sacked while the squabble over tip fees flared up.
“There is no reason whatsoever for Transurban’s builders CPB and John Holland to sack these workers,” a state government spokeswoman said on Wednesday night.
“While businesses across Australia are going to extraordinary lengths to keep staff on – Transurban’s builders sacking more people because they can’t resolve a petty dispute – is disgraceful.”
The government signed the project deal with Transurban, which has then contracted work to companies CPB and John Holland.
The tunnel is due to be finished in 2023, a year behind schedule.
Owners locked out of an Erskineville development two years after it was completed would finally be allowed into their homes under an application before the City of Sydney that pledges toxic contamination is no longer a problem.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority has agreed with a site auditor that there are “no unacceptable risks from the contamination that remains at the property”.
TheSydney Morning Heraldrevealed last year that the council was refusing to allow residents to occupy the Sugarcube Apartments and Honeycomb Terraces despite construction finishing in April 2018.
The 127 homes had been built on the old Ashmore estate, where land was tainted by seven decades of heavy industrial use by a Metters factory, which manufactured kitchen appliances.
Council alleged the developer, Golden Rain Development, had “not complied with the development consent conditions concerning remediation of the site” before construction.
“The developer also proposed a number of environmental management plans that would make the City of Sydney and future residents responsible for ongoing monitoring of the site,” the council said in a statement.
The toxins of concern included heavy metals, hydrocarbons and asbestos.
Golden Rain has now lodged an application with the council to allow a staged occupation of the complex following years of negotiations that appear to have allayed the concerns of the City of Sydney and EPA.
Under the plans, residents would first be allowed into the Sugarcube Apartments, with occupation of the Honeycomb Terraces to follow at a later date.
“The proposed staging will provide a suitable pathway that enables the occupation of the site in an orderly fashion … without substantial further delay,” the application said.
A buyer who asked not to be named said he was looking forward to moving in but the delays had taken a heavy toll on purchasers, some of whom bought off the plan as far back as 2015.
“What sane person would consider [that] waiting five and a half years to settle on a unit is reasonable?” he said.
He said he felt the complex had been unfairly stigmatised by what he saw as shortcomings in how the contamination was addressed in the paperwork rather than genuine risk.
The City of Sydney approved the development on Metters Street in 2015, subject to strict conditions.
Those included an investigation into the contamination, development of a remediation action plan and a statement from a site auditor that the land had been cleaned up in line with the plan before construction could begin.
Any variation to the plan had to be approved in writing by the council and the site auditor.
The council has alleged a private certifier allowed construction to begin before the final site audit statement was issued and there were changes to the remediation action plan that were not approved by the council.
The remediation action plan was completed in 2015 and construction began the following year, according to council documents.
However, in late 2016, additional groundwater and vapour sampling showed up chlorinated volatile organic compounds exceeding safe guidelines.
The investigations uncovered a “plume of chlorinated solvents migrating from the Honeycomb Terraces to the southwest corner of the site”.
An expert report warned that left unchecked, hazardous vapours from the plume could enter buildings and expose residents to an “unacceptable” health risk.
It was decided a vapour barrier would be placed under the building footprint of the Honeycomb Terraces and environmental management plans should be drawn up to manage the risks long term.
The amended strategy was sent to the site auditor in February 2017 after construction had commenced.
The auditor recommended approvals be sought from the City of Sydney, the contamination be reported to the EPA and more details of the vapour barrier be provided.
The barrier was installed by mid-2018, but as of August last year the council still had unresolved concerns.
It asked Golden Rain to investigate environmental insurance “to cover any future rehabilitation costs”, to make changes to its environmental management plans and provide a clear strategy for the maintenance of the vapour barrier system.
The EPA called for more information about risks of contamination migrating off site but was ultimately satisfied the risks were negligible.
By the end of last year, concerns of all parties had been addressed.
In March, council wrote to Golden Rain offering in-principle support for the staged occupation of the site “provided they meet a series of conditions to protect future residents and visitors”.
A spokesperson for Golden Rain Development said there had been “extensive testing of the site” and the EPA agreed there were no unacceptable risks if environmental management plans were in place.
“As a result, no remediation work is necessary,” he said.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has stalled a range of efforts to address PFAS in drinking water, prompting concerns about what could happen if there’s a long-term delay.
The chemicals—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS—have spread through drinking water, air, soil, and groundwater in many states. But the pandemic has delayed a federal study on the health effects of the chemicals, as well as PFAS testing and remediation efforts in Michigan and Ohio, where governors have issued stay-at-home orders and urged social distancing.
Delays of a few weeks or a month won’t throw many projects far off course, said Jeffrey Dintzer, an environmental attorney at Alston & Bird LLP in Los Angeles who specializes in toxic tort and land use litigation. But if the pandemic extends into the fall, “we’re not going to get a lot done in 2020″ in terms of understanding how the chemicals affect humans, he said.
PFAS may cause adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the EPA.
Multiple months of delays are likely to affect federal efforts to curb PFAS pollution, such as an enforceable limit for the chemicals in drinking water, according to Sarah Peterman Bell, a partner at Farella Braun + Martel LLP in San Francisco whose practice includes environmental and natural resources litigation.
“My expectation is that the pandemic is going to delay that action,” she said. As for data collection efforts, like sampling and health studies, “it’s too early, I think, for states or even the federal government to weigh in on when these programs will resume.”
No Field Work
The RACER Trust, which is responsible for cleaning up former General Motors properties in multiple states from Louisiana to New York, has put part of a project in Buick City, Mich. on hold. The trust is rerouting and replacing a stormwater drainage pipe that became a potential channel for PFAS-contaminated groundwater from several properties to enter the Flint River.
But it can’t install a new, sealed pipe because of state restrictions on nonessential work during the pandemic, trust spokesman Bill Callen said.
“No investigation work or sampling that requires field work is being performed,” he said.
Callen said the new pipe will take about three months to install once they’re allowed to resume work. Meanwhile, the trust is continuing to do work remotely, such as preparing cleanup plans or reviewing data.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in an April 10 memo that its regional offices will consider the impacts of the coronavirus when determining whether cleanup at any site should continue.
PFAS is still a priority for many senators, said Marta Hernandez, communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. The next National Defense Authorization Act, which had been a successful vehicle for PFAS legislation for fiscal 2020, is still being drafted.
“It’s too early to comment on what will or won’t be included in the bill,” she said.
PFAS funding will also be a priority in the fiscal 2021 House appropriation bill for the EPA and other agencies, according to Hill staff.
Testing Efforts Grounded
Before the EPA released its memo, Michigan suspended its offer to test some residents’ drinking water wells for PFAS due to the pandemic, according to an April 2 news release from the state’s PFAS Action Response Team.
Instead, homeowners will receive home testing kits that the state will process for free. The state will provide bottled water and filtered water pitchers until homes with potential PFAS contamination can be tested.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been seeking volunteers in U.S. communities most affected by PFAS contamination—such as Parchment, Mich.; Montgomery County and Bucks County, Pa.; and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.—to get a clearer picture of how the chemicals affect the human body. It opened an office at the pilot location for the study, near the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H.
But the agency is following social distancing recommendations and is no longer taking appointments with residents. The study has been put on hold.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency suspended PFAS sampling on March 16 because it couldn’t access buildings to take samples, agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said. The agency had sampled 229 out of 245 schools and child care facilities served by public wells.
Until sampling resumes, she said, the Ohio EPA will continue reviewing incoming sampling results. The agency is unsure when it will be able to continue testing the remaining water systems.
“We intend to remobilize as soon as it is safe to do so,” Griesmer said.
Proceeding as Planned
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed other PFAS remediation efforts, including “essential” water utilities’ work.
Water district officials in Merrimack, N.H., have been working to install a treatment system for PFAS-contaminated drinking water “as quickly as they could,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said.
That work is continuing as scheduled and should be completed by late summer, according to Jill Lavoie, business manager for the Merrimack Village District.
“Besides having some office staff working from home, the pandemic hasn’t posed a problem with the day to day operations of the MVD or construction of the treatment plant,” she said.
As an essential business, she said, “we are practicing social distancing, which isn’t difficult since most employees have their own vehicle.”
Water utilities generally haven’t experienced delays with installing treatment systems, said John A. Sheehan, of counsel at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington, whose specialties include environmental toxic torts. Much of the utilities’ focus has shifted to the safety of their workforce during the pandemic, he said.
Soil samples commissioned by Transurban and presented to public environmental hearings on the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel did not test for potentially carcinogenic chemicals PFAS.
A leading contamination expert has hit out at the “omission”, which points to a possible lack of PFAS testing early on in the project.
Builders CPB Contractors and John Holland are trying to exit the project, alleging the amount of PFAS soil was underestimated in the $5 billion construction contract it signed with Transurban.
The tolling giant claims it tested for PFAS contamination, but the only public document detailing the project’s soil samples shows that they were tested for contaminants such as arsenic, asbestos and lead– not PFAS.
The report by consultancy firm Golder Associates, presented to the project’s Environmental Effects Statement on behalf of Transurban, did however warn that PFAS contamination was high-risk at specific hot spots.
Associate Professor Robert Niven, an environmental engineer from the University of NSW who has spent more than 30 years studying contamination, said the exclusion of PFAS soil samples was an “important omission”.
“They’ve tested for a large suite of different classes of chemicals, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have included PFAS in that list,” he said.
Professor Niven, whose expert advice helped guide a federal inquiry into PFAS contamination, said when the Golder report was created in early 2017, “there was a little bit more awareness about PFAS, but perhaps not enough”.
The Victorian Environment Protection Authority had no hard rules on PFAS management before 2018, despite NSW having waste classifications in place.
The Andrews government closed the former Fiskville CFA academy in 2015 after a number of CFA staff and volunteers contracted cancer, and held a parliamentary inquiry in 2016 into the contamination of the site with chemicals including PFAS.
The EPA had planned to give more clarity on PFAS classifications in an update of its industrial waste guidelines, but this has been delayed a year due to COVID-19 along with changes to the EPA Act.
Australian Workers Union secretary Ben Davis said if PFAS testing was undertaken, “then of course it should have been in the publicly-available EES [Environmental Effects Statement] documents. The people who work on the project have a right to know.”
“This behaviour that we’re seeing most recently from these companies and also Transurban is absolutely disgraceful,” Ms Allan said. “You do have to question is this a tactical move by Transurban and its builders in an attempt to in some way extort the Victorian government, and by extension the Victorian community, to help them sort out this issue.”
Ms Allan said the Victorian government would not consider any requests for extra funding to help resolve the crisis.
Thousands of tonnes of soil have been dug up along the project and are being stockpiled along the West Gate Freeway before tunnelling begins.
But Professor Niven warned that simply using a tarpaulin to cover stockpiles of PFAS soil would not prevent it from leaching out into the water system.
“In my experience of contaminated soil, this is a really bad way to store contaminated soil, since it does not adequately prevent the entry of rainfall to the soil, nor the leaching of contaminants from the stockpile into underlying soils,” he said.
Sources close to the project say “weak guidance” from the Victorian EPA meant the road’s consultants were “unprepared” for a tougher regulatory regime on PFAS.
In February, Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton blamed “evolving” EPA rules for delays on the project. “Historically the PFAS was an unregulated contaminant and was considered fill material, but that arrangement with the EPA has been evolving over the past few years,” he said.
When asked on Tuesday to explain why the soil testing reports did not mention screening for PFAS, Transurban referred The Age back to Mr Charlton’s previous comments.
The EPA introduced a new PFAS threshold in 2018, after the signing of the West Gate Tunnel contract in 2017.
The contaminants tested in the Golder report complied with Victoria’s current industrial waste guidelines.
Secret internal soil samples prepared for the project in late 2018 and leaked to The Age revealed very high levels of PFAS in the project’s worst hot spots.
Opposition transport infrastructure spokesman David Davis said: “Why didn’t Labor set the rules on PFAS and the toxic soil transparently from the start? Its incompetence pure and simple.”
An EPA spokesman said: “EPA continues to take a strict and precautionary approach to PFAS.”
Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan has hit out at Transurban and the builders of the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel as more than 200 workers on the troubled toll road project were stood down, with another 400 at risk of losing their jobs in coming months.
Senior industry, union and government sources confirmed to The Age late on Monday that about 100 white-collar staff employed by the project’s builders – CPB Contractors and John Holland – and possibly another 130 subcontractors were being stood down.
The companies had not announced the job losses by Tuesday afternoon, so no official reason has yet been provided.
But sources with detailed knowledge of the project said the cuts were linked to claims by the builders that costs had increased due to the landfill levy associated with the dumping of contaminated soil already dug up and being stockpiled along the West Gate Freeway.
The builders wrote to head project contractor Transurban on March 31, advising the company that if a site was not found to dispose of the project’s soil within the next two weeks, it would cut up to 600 jobs in the next 12 weeks.
Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan blasted the project’s builders and Transurban on Tuesday, raising the possibility they were playing a tactical game aimed at extorting the Victorian taxpayer.
“This behaviour that were seeing most recently from these companies and also Transurban is absolutely disgraceful,” she said in a press conference called in the wake of the cuts.
“You do have to question is this a tactical move by Transurban and its builders in an attempt to in some way extort the Victorian government and by extension, the Victorian community to help them sort out this issue.
“This is just unacceptable behaviour.”
The state government wrote to Transurban on April 22, confirming that the soil stockpiled along the freeway had received necessary EPA approvals and that there was sufficient licensed landfill capacity to accept it.
The government has been determined to resist pressure to bail the contractors out over the contamination conundrum. Senior government figures have been scathing behind the scenes about the tactics used by Transurban, CPB and John Holland, with one source accusing the companies of trying to “extort taxpayer money” from the government.
The builders have already used the EPA approvals to remove piles of soil along Footscray Road and the soil stockpiled along the freeway was a very small portion of all the spoil to be unearthed to build the toll road.
Ms Allan said the job losses were unnecessary and were occurring while other businesses were trying to do all they could to keep people employed.
“There is no reason whatsoever for Transurban’s builders, CPB and John Holland, to sack these workers,” Ms Allan said.
“The stockpiles of soil currently on site can be moved immediately – the builder has all the necessary EPA approvals to take this soil to licensed landfill sites.
The job losses come at a difficult time as unemployment surges towards 10 per cent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and governments seek to bolster job numbers with stimulus spending and borrowing.
“While businesses across Australia are going to extraordinary lengths to keep staff on, Transurban’s builders are proposing to sack up to 600 people because they can’t agree who should pay tip fees – it’s disgraceful,” Ms Allan said.
Ms Allan said the Victorian government would not consider any requests for extra funding to help resolve the crisis. “We are not entertaining those requests.”
With a price tag of $5.5 billion and a promise to reduce congestion, the West Gate Tunnel project is an ambitious one. But does it stack up?
The builders are in a dispute with Transurban, claiming the issue of soil being contaminated with potentially carcinogenic PFAS chemicals amounts to a force majeure event. Transurban is disputing this claim and is reserving its rights to seek damages from the builders over late delivery.
Sources said there were plans to redeploy the 100 workers directly employed on the West Gate Tunnel on other projects or offer them redundancies. The West Gate Tunnel project employs 4000 workers.
Delays and job losses on one of Labor’s signature projects are also a blow to Premier Daniel Andrews’ “can do” reputation and his focus on getting infrastructure built.
Last week, Transurban admitted that the toll road was running late and would not be completed until 2023, instead of 2022.
A Transurban spokeswoman urged the builders to keep the workers employed.
“We are extremely disappointed the CPB-John Holland joint venture is taking these steps when there are options to keep staff employed,” she said.
“While there are challenges on the project, there are plenty of pathways forward to progress works and we urge the CPB-John Holland joint venture to keep these people in a job.
“The CPB-John Holland joint venture has a fixed-price, fixed-time contract to deliver the West Gate Tunnel project including responsibility for all staffing, construction and tunnelling works.”
The $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel could face a wave of fresh legal battles over plans to dump soil contaminated with PFAS in landfill in Melbourne’s west.
Moorabool Shire Council is considering launching legal action that may further delay tunnelling on Transurban’s new toll road, as Bacchus Marsh residents weigh up a separate legal bid to stop PFAS soil getting dumped at the Maddingley Brown Coal landfill site, which is located hundreds of metres from homes and schools.
It comes as Maddingley, shortlisted to accept the project’s 1.2 million cubic metres of soil, lodged an application with Planning Minister Richard Wynne to use special powers to intervene and replace the council as the planning authority.
Moorabool mayor David Edwards said if shire council was shut out of the planning process and the soil was sent to Maddingley, there was little option but to consider legal action.
“Council would explore all legal avenues available to it to ensure that the community remains safe,” he said.
The shire council confirmed on Friday that it would take Maddingley Brown Coal to VCAT over alleged breaches of their permit relating to the landfill’s current operations.
In April, it asked the Andrews government and Transurban to suspend plans to send soil to Maddingley during the COVID-19 pandemic, complaining of a lack of community consultation and technical reports being kept secret.
“You may be able to tell everybody ‘don’t worry, it’s safe’ but if you don’t have that evidence, if you can’t provide that assurance, you’re going to cause a lot of grief and angst in the community and that’s exactly what’s playing out,” Cr Edwards said.
Bacchus Marsh resident Kat Barlow said it was wrong to send the West Gate Tunnel’s soil to Maddingley if the business was already in breach of their permit.
“If they choose Maddingley, we will take legal action,” she warned. “We won’t ever stop the fight because we’re not willing to compromise our safety or our future.” The group had set up a Go Fund Me page asking residents to help support their legal fees.
Soil contamination at the West Gate Tunnel project has halted works and now a contractual dispute over whether the builders will continue.
Other community groups such as the Moorabool Environment Group say they are exploring all possible options to stop the soil being sent to the landfill.
Trucks from the West Gate Tunnel have been transporting soil with low levels of PFAS to Hi-Quality in Bulla in recent weeks. Hi-Quality and Cleanaway in Ravenhall are other landfill sites shortlisted to receive the project’s tunnelling soil.
While these landfills are licensed to take low levels of PFAS, concerned residents want to know exactly how the soil will be dumped to ensure it does not leach out, and how soil with very high levels of PFAS would be managed.
Leaked borehole tests revealed PFAS contamination is up to 2000 times the acceptable amount in drinking water in one hotspot.
Transurban admitted this week the project is running behind schedule and would open in 2023 instead of late 2022 because of delays in managing the project’s contaminated soil.
A government spokeswoman said no planning decision had been made about Maddingley and approvals from EPA Victoria were also required.
“The minister will consider all relevant matters under the planning laws in an appropriate timeframe.”
A West Gate Tunnel project spokeswoman said: “The levels of PFAS in the soil from the tunnel boring are expected to be low and at safe levels for the community and the environment with appropriate controls.”
A Transurban spokeswoman said the EPA would decide how the PFAS soil is disposed of and the project’s builders were working on a “tailored solution for tunnelling that meets all the relevant EPA requirements”.
The spokeswoman said testing showed the levels of PFAS expected to be found during tunnelling are lower than what is considered acceptable by authorities in recreational water.
The $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project was due to start in July last year and finish by 2022, but was delayed after Transurban, its builders and the State Government could not agree on how to treat and dump contaminated soil.
In an announcement to its investors, Transurban today said it was “committed to working with the State and the D&C subcontractor to resolve the tunnelling issues”.
“We’ve made it clear we intend to hold Transurban to that contract and what’s contained in that contract is that for every day that this project is not completed beyond 2022, Transurban lose millions of dollars,” Ms Allan said.
She said Transurban would also suffer a loss in revenue in toll charges, and revenues written into the contract with the Government.
“It is a fixed-price contract and the Government will be holding Transurban to the letter of that contract,” she said.
“The Government’s message to Transurban is really clear; you’ve got to get on, resolve the dispute with the builders, resolve the disposal of the soil from the tunnel boring activities, get those tunnel boring machines going as quickly as possible and honour the commitment and the contract that Transurban has signed.”
She said she was notified last week that Transurban would likely be advising its investors of the delay.
Transurban also told investors it was working through the requirements to “gain necessary planning and environmental approvals” for proposed disposal sites for the contaminated soil.
Opposition transport spokesman David Davis said the Premier and Ms Allan “must be the only people in Victoria who didn’t know the project was in trouble”.
“Daniel Andrews and his incompetent Transport Infrastructure Minister either knew about the time blowout and covered up, or they should have known,” he said.
Sam Hibbins, the Greens’s spokesman on transport issues, said the delay was further proof that it was a bad idea from the start, calling it a “self-serving project designed to benefit Transurban at the expense of Victorian drivers”.
“Given the generous increase and extension of tolling revenue from the State Government, I doubt any costs associated with delaying the project by a year will be of much consequence to Transurban,” he said.
CPB and John Holland said at the time that the discovery of contaminated soil constituted a “Force Majeure Termination Event” — a common clause in contracts that frees both parties from liability in the event of an extraordinary circumstance beyond the control of both parties, preventing one of both of them from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.
The CPB and John Holland alliance and Transurban have been at odds as to how to resolve the issue of the contaminated soil, but the State Government says it expects the parties to resolve the matter themselves.
Ms Allan acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic had affected the construction industry around the world and said there had “been some challenges around the removal of soil” but said “the financial cost very clearly sits with Transurban”.
She would not say whether the Government would pursue legal action over the delay.
Preliminary data show soil and water near New York facility are contaminated
New data suggest that commercial incineration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) doesn’t break down these hardy chemicals. Instead, it spreads them into surrounding areas.
Soil and surface water near an incinerator in Cohoes, New York, that has burned firefighting foam containing PFAS are tainted with these persistent substances, preliminary data released April 27 by Bennington College show.
In early March, a team of professors and students from the Vermont college traveled about 50 km (31 miles) from their campus to Cohoes, where they collected soil and surface water samples near the incinerator. A commercial laboratory analyzed the samples for the presence of PFAS.
The PFAS found in the samples are the same chemicals that were formerly used in firefighting foams, notably perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), says David Bond, a professor at Bennington College.
The new data suggest that incineration of the PFAS-containing foam at the Cohoes incinerator is not breaking down the persistent chemicals but is “redistributing them into nearby poor and working-class neighborhoods,” Bond says.
“It’s the very definition of foolhardy to try to keep burning these things,” Bond says of PFAS. “By design, they resist thermal degradation.”
The sampling was part of research that the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted, Bond says. Investigators found the early results alarming and significant for public health so they opted to release them before publication. “It’s not ethical to sit on data like that,” Bond adds.
Norlite, a company that makes a ceramic aggregate material, operates the Cohoes incinerator, burning hazardous waste to fire two kilns. Norlite has voluntarily stopped accepting and processing firefighting foam, pending research by the US Environmental Protection Agency, says a statement from Tradebe an environmental services company of which Norlite is a subsidiary. Tradebe points out that Norlite burned the PFAS-containing foam in accordance with permits from the EPA and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
The US military and nearby states have sent PFAS-containing firefighting foam to the Norlite plant. This incinerator is one of several across the US that environmental activists are asking a federal judge to shut down. A federal law enacted in December requires the Department of Defense to ensure that the incinerators it sends its PFAS materials to actually break down these persistent compounds.
WASHINGTON – The Trump White House has intervened to weaken one of the few public health protections pursued by its own administration, a rule to limit the use of a toxic industrial compound in consumer products, according to communications between the White House and Environmental Protection Agency.
The documents show that the White House Office of Management and Budget formally notified the EPA by email last July that it was stepping into the crafting of the rule on the compound, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, used in nonstick and stain-resistant frying pans, rugs, and countless other consumer products.
The White House repeatedly pressed the agency to agree to a major loophole that could allow substantial imports of the PFAS-tainted products to continue, greatly weakening the proposed rule. EPA pushed back on the White House demand for the loophole, known as a “safe harbor” provision for industry.
Pushed again in January, the agency responded, “EPA opposes proposing a safe harbor provision, but is open to a neutrally-worded request for comment from the public” on the White House request.
A ‘national priority’
The rule is one of the few concrete steps that the Trump administration has taken to deal with growing contamination by PFAS industrial compounds. The EPA has declared dating back to 2018 that consumer exposure to the substances was a “national priority” that the agency was confronting “aggressively.”
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, who obtained the documents revealing the White House intervention, and public-health advocates say the White House action was led by Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry executive now detailed to President Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.
In a letter sent Friday to the EPA, Carper charged the White House pressure amounts to unusual intervention in what had been the EPA’s in-house efforts to regulate imports tainted with the compound. Trump has nominated Beck to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a government panel charged with protecting Americans from harm by thousands of kinds of consumer goods.
Asked about the White House actions, EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said in an email that “consulting with other federal agencies on actions is a normal process across government,” and that “EPA is often required to engage in an interagency review process led by OMB.”
“It is routine for the agency to receive input from all of our stakeholders, including our federal partners,” Schiermeyer wrote.
The EPA did not respond to a question about whether Beck led the White House intervention. Emails sent for comment to the White House, the White House Office of Management and Budget and Beck were not immediately answered.
Carper obtained pages of back-and-forth proposed changes, redline drafts and other communications between the White House Office of Management and Budget, the EPA and others on the draft rule. No authors are listed in many of the final rounds of White House edits, drafts and proposals and EPA’s responses.
Carper wrote to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Friday to object to the White House push for weakening of the rule, newly revealed in the documents. Carper said it appeared that Beck, who was moved to the White House from a top regulatory job at the Trump EPA, “sought to make it more difficult for EPA to use its authority … to protect Americans from these harmful substances.”
Raising the technical bar
While thousands of kinds of PFAS compounds are still in use in the United States, the new EPA rule would set up agency oversight of imports of products that use a few kinds of the compounds that manufacturers agreed to phase out in this country starting in 2006. Those versions remain in production in some parts of the world.
In addition to the safe harbor loophole, another change sought by the White House would raise the technical bar for EPA to consider blocking any of the tainted products.
The agency agreed to rewrite the rule to include a third White House request, narrowing the range of imported products that would fall under the rule.
The official public comment period for the current form of the rule ends Friday, moving the proposal close to crafting of its final form. Congress, impatient for the Trump administration to start bringing the PFAS compounds under federal regulation, has ordered the administration to get a final rule out by mid-summer.
Even if the rule goes out in its current form, applying to fewer kinds of product imports, “it would certainly be better than where we are without it,” although “scaled back significantly from what it was originally,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, and a longtime monitor of the EPA’s regulation of toxic substances.
But if the final rule includes the other two key changes being pushed by the White House “it could even do more damage than good,” Denison said.
Industries also would be likely to push for those two exceptions in regulations of future substances, Denison said. “Those two provisions would establish precedence that the EPA has never used for 40 years.”
Array of health problems
Industries produce thousands of versions of the man-made compounds. They are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics, and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams.
Public health studies on exposed populations have associated them with an array of health problems, including some cancers, and weakened immunity. The advent of widespread testing for the contaminant over the past few years found it in high levels in many public water systems around the country. The administration initially sought in 2018 to suppress a federal toxicology warning on the danger of the compounds, then publicly vowed action.
More than 40,000 people are expected to take part in a class action against the Department of Defence over the military’s use of PFAS.
Australia’s largest class action yet is expected to be filed on Thursday in a major legal battle against the Department of Defence over allegations families have been exposed to a toxic firefighting chemical.
Residents of Wagga Wagga and Richmond in NSW, Wodonga in Victoria, Darwin in the Northern Territory and Townsville in Queensland, Edinburgh in South Australia and Bullsbrook in Western Australia allege their land and water have been contaminated by PFAS chemicals used by the military.
Shine Lawyers said it will file the class action, which seeks compensation for residents who have experienced significant drops in property prices, in the Federal Court in NSW on Thursday.
More than 40,000 people who live and work on contaminated land are expected to join forces to sue the government.
Lead applicant Reannan Haswell said she moved to Bullsbrook, north-east of Perth, 10 years ago with her partner Beaux Tilley.
They now hold serious concerns about their family’s safety.
Mr Tilley said they were afraid to let their children drink or bathe from their water supply.
“We’re trapped on property with little or no value as a result of our exposure to PFAS,” he said.