“Pennsylvania officials said they’re having trouble finding a toxicologist to set a state drinking water standard for a toxic chemical for the first time. State Rep. Tom Murt says he’s still pushing a plan to set a standard through legislation…

‘It is a big deal,’ said David Hess, a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. ‘There’s definitely a need.’

Hess runs PA Environment Digest, a website tracking daily environmental goings-on in Harrisburg. A meeting of the DEP’s Environmental Quality Board on Tuesday piqued his attention, as the department’s staff offered an update on their efforts to consider setting a state standard for PFOA, a toxic chemical found in elevated levels in some local water supplies in recent years.

The effort to set a standard for the chemical began in summer 2017, when the Bristol Borough-based environmental nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network successfully petitioned the DEP board to consider a limit. Staff from DEP, as well as the state Department of Health, then went about the task of seeing what it would take. On Tuesday, staff reported back that they were struggling to find a toxicologist — a researcher necessary to determine safe levels of chemicals.

‘Many states are grappling with addressing issues related to emerging contaminants, and there is significant competition for candidates with the qualifications and experience required,’ Neil Shader, DEP press secretary, wrote in an email. ‘That said, we are working to find a qualified candidate to fill this important role.’

Officials from DEP say the department has not set a state drinking water standard before. And Shader confirmed that neither the DEP nor DOH currently employs a toxicologist capable of developing such a standard.

Typically, the state relies on federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the EPA itself hasn’t set a new standard for any chemical in nearly 20 years, leaving unregulated contaminants such as PFOA and sister chemical PFOS without an official drinking water limit. The federal agency is considering setting standards for those chemicals, but in the interim many states are doing it themselves…

Shader said the position was re-posted and is open until mid-September. An online ad for the position lists the potential salary range as $95,120 to $141,399 and requires a doctorate and at least three years of experience as a professional toxicologist.

Hess said the hiring of a toxicologist would open up numerous possibilities for the state. In addition to being able to set its own drinking water standards, it could also use toxicology to evaluate potential health impacts in other areas, such as the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas in the state’s Marcellus Shale region…

Hess said that at Tuesday’s meeting, state officials cited several other reasons they had trouble hiring a toxicologist, beyond competition with other states. Among them were salary considerations and that candidates did not want to be the only toxicologist working on developing standards or evaluations.

States sometimes are sued by regulated industries over the standards they set, with researchers facing court depositions and challenges to their work. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has toxicologists and a 15-member Drinking Water Quality Institute, which brings together scientists of varying disciplines to set standards.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, presented the petition for a PFOA standard in Pennsylvania last year. Asked about the state’s failure to find a toxicologist and advance a standard a year later, she called it ‘completely unacceptable.’ …

A potential legislative shortcut to setting a PFOA standard is floating around Harrisburg but has yet to gain traction. State Rep. Tom Murt, R-152, of Upper Moreland, introduced House Bill 705 last year, which would set a standard of 5 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA, and the same amount for PFOS. The bill has bipartisan support, particularly from regional lawmakers, but is sitting in the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee…

‘We are still very supportive of the bill,’ Murt said, admitting that it may not move out of committee by the end of current legislative session. ‘We’d still like to have at least a hearing.’

Murt said he put in a request for a hearing to committee chair John Maher, R-Allegheny County, but hasn’t yet heard back.

When initially proposed, the bill appeared to get some resistance in Harrisburg from groups opposed to setting such a standard statewide, as it would require every water authority to test for the chemicals and pay for treatment if they’re found above the standard. Murt said he hadn’t heard such criticisms.”

Read the full article by Kyle Bagenstose