Impose $200 million in PFAS cleanup costs with no idea what the benefits are? Whatever


Sometimes, the bills everyone is afraid to vote against are the ones we should worry about the most. The PFAS bill passed 23-1 in the Senate last week is a great example. 

If you haven’t followed the Saga of the State PFAS Standards,* well, you’re probably a normal human being with a happy life, and we’re sorry to bring it up. Just know that it’s less complicated than the plot of Twin Peaks, but more complicated than Bulgaria’s relationship with Turkish soap operas.

Because we know you’re rushing out the door to enjoy in-person restaurant dining before Shutdown II: Corona Boogaloo starts, we’ll try to keep this as short as a Looney Toons episode with all the violence removed. 

The state Senate recently bundled into House Bill 1246 a bunch of PFAS-related bills for rapid passage in the coronavirus-shortened legislative session. We’ll focus on just one section of this bill: the part that writes PFAS maximum contamination levels (MCLs) into law.

The bill adopts the MCLs issued by the state Department of Environmental Services last year. These standards are, to be diplomatic, of questionable scientific legitimacy. 

The allowed parts per trillion (yes, trillion) are many times lower than the Environmental Protection Agency’s guideline levels and are based on animal tests and a questionable model adopted by one state (Minnesota).

Moreover, the costs are enormous and the benefits unknown — despite the fact that the department was required by law to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. 

The department estimated the costs at $190 million. That’s a gigantic sum. Though the point of a cost-benefit analysis is to determine whether the benefits are worth the costs, the department offered only a qualitative, not a quantitative, analysis of the benefits. That is, it couldn’t put a price tag on the benefits it claimed would result from these lower levels. 

“Any rational interpretation of the statute requires more,” a judge ruled last November in a lawsuit challenging the inadequacy of the cost-benefit analysis. That lawsuit is pending before the state Supreme Court. 

In the absence of a quality state analysis, the New England Ratepayers Association hired an economist to do one. It estimated the benefits to range between $2.6 million and $8.0 million per year, far lower than the estimated costs of $11.6 million to $23.2 million per year.

Usually, legislators will wait for a court ruling before moving forward with legislation in situations like this. Not this time. 

Writing these incredibly low and costly MCLs into law now, before the Supreme Court has determined whether their adoption was done legally, is foolhardy. 

Writing them into law without having any evidence that the benefits will outweigh the costs is reckless. 

Writing them into law without really knowing whether levels that low and that expensive are absolutely necessary to protect public health is sloppy.

These are only some of the problems with one section of this PFAS bill.

Given the poor state of municipal and business budgets this year, adding these additional costs now will only push local governments further into the red. There’s a very real possibility that the cleanup costs associated with these mandates will combine with other budget difficulties to trigger property tax increases. 

Waiting six months for the economy to recover further and the Supreme Court to act would be the prudent move. (But this is politics. If you want prudence, buy The White Album.) 

Legislation this foolhardy, reckless and sloppy usually meets more than token opposition. But this bill is expected to pass easily next week. 

Maybe, a few years after it passes and municipalities have spent tens of millions of dollars to meet its mandates, triggering property tax increases, we’ll finally get that complete and legally required cost-benefit analysis from the department.

*Rumored to be the title of Bob Dylan’s new 37-minute-long single.