The PFAS Roadmap: Pathway to Environmental Justice

In October 2021, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) issued its PFAS Roadmap, establishing a comprehensive, three-year plan to address the potential risks posed by this large class of manmade compounds, often referred to as “forever chemicals.” The Roadmap takes a “whole of Agency” approach to address the risks of PFAS, outlining a wide range of measures to be taken under the authority of multiple statutes, including the Clean Water Act (CWA), Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). In outlining the measures to be taken, the Roadmap also evinces a commitment to promoting and implementing environmental justice (E.J.) principles, and ensuring that disparate impacts to E.J. communities are addressed.

From inception, the Biden administration has signaled its intention to prioritize E.J. concerns in pursuing its environmental agenda. On January 27, 2021, just one week after taking office, President Biden signed Executive Order (E.O.) 14008, which, in addition to addressing climate change and clean energy matters, set forth broad E.J. objectives for the administration, declaring:

Agencies shall make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, as well as the accompanying economic challenges of such impacts. It is therefore the policy of my Administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.

(E.O. 14008, Section 219.)

Building upon the objectives outlined in the E.O., the Roadmap likewise prioritizes protection of disadvantaged communities as a basic tenet of its approach, noting that many known and likely sources of PFAS contamination (including military bases, airports, industrial facilities, and waste management and disposal sites) are located near low-income communities and communities of color. E.J. concerns are to be considered in pursuing each of the goals outlined in the Roadmap, which fall into three broad categories: 1) Research; 2) Restrict; and 3) Remediate, through the establishment of specific E.J. objectives.

The “Research” goal is, “Invest in research, development, and innovation to increase understanding of PFAS exposures and toxicities, human health and ecological effects, and effective interventions that incorporate the best available science.” The corresponding E.J. objective is “Conduct research to understand how PFAS contribute to the cumulative burden of pollution in communities with environmental justice concerns.”

The “Restrict” goal is, “Pursue a comprehensive approach to proactively prevent PFAS from entering air, land, and water at levels that can adversely impact human health and the environment.”  The E.J. objectives for this goal include, “Prevent or minimize PFAS discharges and emissions in all communities, regardless of income, race, or language barriers.”

The “Remediate” goal is to “Broaden and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination to protect human health and ecological systems.” Two objectives highlighting E.J. concerns are: 1) “Help ensure that communities impacted by PFAS receive resources and assistance to address contamination, regardless of income, race, or language barriers”; and 2) “Accelerate the deployment of treatment, remediation, destruction, disposal, and mitigation technologies for PFAS, and ensure that disposal and destruction activities do not create new pollution problems in communities with environmental justice concerns.”

To further these E.J. objectives, the Roadmap calls for a cross-program effort to engage with affected communities.  “EPA will meet with affected communities in each EPA Region to hear how PFAS contamination impacts their lives and livelihoods.” Knowledge gained from these community engagements will inform EPA’s implementation of all the other actions called for in the Roadmap.

In addition to the cross-program effort, the actions by the media-specific offices to implement the Roadmap will likewise include E.J.-focused efforts. The Office of Water anticipates addressing E.J. matters in implementing the proposed Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) under the SDWA, gathering data on 29 PFAS from a significantly expanded number of drinking water systems to improve EPA’s ability to conduct contamination assessments, “including analyses of potential E.J. impacts.” Similarly, the air program would use tools such as EJSCREEN to determine whether PFAS air pollution disproportionately affects E.J. communities. Likewise, the Office of Research and Development will focus on characterizing cumulative exposures to assess impacts on environmental justice communities.

In preparing the PFAS Roadmap, EPA has made a conscious effort to ensure that E.J. considerations are woven directly into the plan’s DNA, and should be expected at each stage of implementation.

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About the Author

Kevin Desharnais, an environmental litigator and counselor with over two decades of experience, practices out of the firm’s Chicago office. He can be reached at or 312-782-6660, and his biography can be accessed here.