Wis. lawmakers wage multifront war against PFAS

A bipartisan effort to curb toxic chemical contamination runs into resistance from the Trump administration

Foam products used by firefighters contain PFAS. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

WASHINGTON — Wisconsin lawmakers are fueling a bipartisan campaign to crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems.

Efforts to regulate the chemicals — known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — are backed by Wisconsin Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) and Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay), both of whom are members of a congressional PFAS task force.

“A lot of us are working on it,” Pocan said in a telephone interview. “A lot of parts of the country have PFAS contaminants affecting the water. That’s why this is such a crucial issue and why people in a bipartisan way are working towards trying to resolve it.”

Used in tape, nonstick pans, microwave popcorn bags and other everyday products, PFAS are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other health problems. 

They have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country. In Wisconsin, they’ve been found in four drinking water systems, five military sites and one other site, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

Contaminated sites include Starkweather Creek in Madison, Silver Creek in Monroe County and city wells in La Crosse.

House lawmakers are taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the issue, pushing for PFAS legislation in Congress, pressing for action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and raising public awareness about their harmful effects.

“There are a lot of different ways to try and move this forward,” Pocan said. “The tough part is it’s going to take some real resources to deal with it.”

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) has also been pushing legislation in the upper chamber of Congress that’s aimed at detecting and regulating PFAS contamination. 

Pocan said the best hope for immediate action is the “must pass” National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a bill he opposed earlier this year on account of its high price tag. The House and Senate each passed its own version of the NDAA last summer, and some PFAS-related provisions in the bills differ. Members of a House-Senate conference committee are now negotiating differences between the bills.

House lawmakers are fighting in particular for a provision in the House version that would require the EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). If enacted, the provision would trigger cleanup of sites contaminated by PFAS.

The White House has threatened to veto the NDAA, in part over objections to certain PFAS provisions. 

But Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, shrugged off President Trump’s threat. “The president is not going to hold up a $730 billion bill over PFAS,” he said.

Another possibility for action in the near term is House-approved funding to address PFAS. That “could be helpful” but it is being held up by the Senate, said Pocan, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Pocan and Gallagher are also pushing for legislation that would require those who manufacture, process or use PFAS to report their uses of PFAS to the EPA.

“Northeast Wisconsin knows all too well about the growing threat that PFAS pose to our waters and our communities,” Gallagher, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “We need a better understanding of where these contaminants come from, and adding them to the [Toxic Rlease Inventory] TRI will ensure we have more information on how to address this problem.”

Pocan is pushing for other PFAS-related bills, and Gallagher is also a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide the U.S. Geological Survey with resources to develop new technologies to detect PFAS and would require the organization to carry out nationwide PFAS sampling.

This week also featured the House’s fourth PFAS hearing in the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on the Environment, which Democrats used to call on the EPA to take immediate action to regulate PFAS.

The EPA unveiled a PFAS “action plan” in February and is expected to roll out a set of recommendations before the end of the year that will provide a “starting point” for making site-specific cleanup decisions.

But critics say the action plan doesn’t go far enough to contain and clean up PFAS and they’re skeptical the new recommendations will put public health over corporate profits.

“No administration in history has done more to weaken air and water pollution standards, so I am expecting a lump of coal from [EPA chief] Andy Wheeler, literally and figuratively,” Faber said. “That does not bode well for communities that are struggling with PFAS pollution.”

In previous hearings this year, Democratic lawmakers accused leading chemical companies such as DuPont TK and 3M of withholding information from the public about the chemicals’ harmful effects on public health. 

Corporate representatives have denied the claims and said there is no known link to negative health effects.

Also this week, a public interest media company launched a campaign to raise awareness about so-called “forever” chemicals. The cornerstone of the campaign is a new film that chronicles the life of Robert Bilott, a former environmental attorney who brought the harmful effects of a PFAS chemical to light in a case against DuPont.

The film, Dark Waters, is “a story about bringing justice to communities that have been living with PFAS for decades,” said Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays Bilott in the film. 

“What we’re doing here today is we’re basically gathering lawmakers and building momentum to have some legislation on this issue to protect us,” Ruffalo said this week during a press conference on Capitol Hill.