Andrew Wheeler

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler talks about the direction the agency is taking during a stop in Charleston on Friday, August 9, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

The head of the country’s foremost environmental regulatory agency said his department is examining whether to establish a maximum contaminant level for toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam that has polluted groundwater at South Carolina military bases.

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told The Post and Courier on Friday that chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA are being evaluated to see if current regulations are enough to prevent groundwater contamination.

Currently, he said, the agency has a health advisory for the chemicals — linked to kidney and testicular cancers, pregnancy complications and thyroid disease — once it tests at more than 70 parts per trillion.

What takes more time is surveying the chemicals themselves to determine how to establish a maximum contaminant level. Since there are more than 5,000 varieties, it takes time to determine which chemicals need restrictions, Wheeler said.

“We’re doing research at the front end to figure out what chemicals of the PFOS family are safe or not safe,” he said. “I know people, when they hear about a problem, everyone wants it solved overnight, but it can’t be solved overnight. We’ve been manufacturing this chemical for 40 plus years. ... It’s a very complex issue.”

The potential dangers behind these chemicals have been highlighted in recent stories in The Post and Courier.

In the coming months, Wheeler said the EPA will continue surveying groundwater to see how widespread the contamination is before determining whether to establish a maximum contaminant level, as is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“I want to make sure that people don’t think we’re just waiting for this MCL process to run its course. It’s important if you’re going to require testing by every single water system in the country,” he said. “But we want to make sure that we’re protecting people’s water today. So where we find it, we get it cleaned up.”

Wheeler, who was in Charleston to speak at the National Association of Manufacturer’s Conference, also talked to The Post and Courier on a number of topics related to South Carolina.

Regarding the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations on carbon dioxide emissions, which specifically impacts the Palmetto State through Santee Cooper and its remaining coal-burning power plants, Wheeler — a former coal lobbyist — demurred when asked if deregulation could save the U.S. thermal coal industry.

“I don’t know what the utilities will do,” he said. “It’s not the EPA’s responsibility. We never, until the (Obama-era) Clean Power Plan, dictated what type of fuel the power sector should use. Our job is to set the standards.”

Critics say deregulating industries like coal, and by extension greenhouse gas emissions, hurts efforts to reverse the effects of climate change, which scientists consider the biggest global threat over the next 30 years.

Moreover, the United Nations has warned repeatedly that if drastic fixes are not made in the next 10 years, damage to the planet from man-made climate change will be irreversible.

“They said that 10 years ago, too,” Wheeler said with a chuckle. “People running for president are saying climate change is the No. 1 existential threat. I think the biggest international environmental issue facing the world today is water. Today, 1,000 children die every single day from lack of drinking water.”

“Climate change is more of a long-term threat," he added, "but we need to be doing something about it.”

Despite efforts to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord agreement, Wheeler said the United States is still doing its part to reduce CO2 and methane emissions and blamed the agreement for allowing China to increase its emissions until 2030.

“We are reducing our CO2, we are reducing our methane,” he said. “The Clean Power Plan would have stopped any new coal development here in the United States, but China is still building a new coal-fired power plant, at least one per week.

“So by allowing the United States coal industry to continue, it will allow further investment and cleaner technologies that then can be exported to other countries,” Wheeler said. “If we were to zero out our CO2 emissions in their country, there would be unilateral disarmament in economic terms.”

Meanwhile, Wheeler also highlighted changes to automobile regulation that he says should spur job growth in the industry by encouraging more people to buy new cars. Obama-era manufacturing regulations, Wheeler said, stipulated that by 2025 some 50 percent of vehicles would be electric. This came at a cost to manufacturers such as Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and others who have a strong presence in South Carolina's economy.

“That’s not what the American consumers are buying,” he said. “The proposal will reduce the price of a new car by about $2,300. We think that by reducing the price of new cars, it will encourage people to buy newer cars. Newer cars are inherently safer, and they’re inherently better for the environment than older cars.

“We think it will help automobile manufacturers, the automobile manufacturers you have in South Carolina, because we’ve encouraged new car sales.”

Wheeler was confirmed as EPA chief in February and previously served as its acting head since July 2018. He took over the job after EPA administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down following multiple ethical scandals.

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Contact Conner Mitchell at 843-958-1336. Follow him on Twitter at @ConnerMitchell0.

Conner Mitchell is a Kansas native covering Berkeley and Dorchester counties for The Post and Courier. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas and has worked previously at the Kansas City Star, Lawrence Journal-World and Palm Beach Post.