Firefighting foam being used after a barge carrying unleaded fuel exploded 2003, New York City. (Photo by Mike Hvozda/USCG/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON—Members of Congress and Biden administration officials at a conference on Wednesday outlined how they’re attempting to regulate toxic chemicals found in drinking water—including an upcoming vote in the U.S. House.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, a former top environmental official in North Carolina, said the agency is currently in the process of regulating two of the most studied types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water.
Two Michigan Democrats, U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee, added that House Democratic leaders will bring the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which aims to reduce Americans’ exposure to the toxic chemicals in air, water and consumer products, to a floor vote next week.
“We recognize PFAS is an urgent health challenge,” Regan said. “We’re committed to working with all stakeholders to protect the health and safety of all of our communities.”
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to various health concerns such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer. The chemicals don’t break down and build up in people’s bodies.
In Wisconsin: More PFAS, steps backward in regulation
As a backdrop to the federal progress, the PFAS situation continues to deteriorate in Wisconsin.
Another city has discovered new PFAS chemicals contaminating its drinking water. On Monday, Eau Claire announced that four of its 16 municipal wells had levels of PFAS that exceeded the safety level recommended by the Department of Health Services of 20 parts per trillion. The wells tested between 21 to 70 parts per trillion. It is the latest of 50 Wisconsin cities that have found PFAS in local drinking water. French Island (outside La Crosse), Madison, Milwaukee, Marinette, Rhinelander are all on that list.
Last month the Department of Natural Resources received approval from its board to begin drafting standards for a variety of PFAS and pesticide substances at the urging of the state health department. But the Legislature has also taken some steps backward, buried in a bill that creates a municipal grant program for cleanup.
State Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) received a memo she requested from Legislative Council analyzing a bill passed last month by the Assembly. The research, which she calls “very troubling,” shows that while it makes provisions for a $10 million grant program to address PFAS contamination, to receive the money, communities must sign a “waiver of action” provision barring them from making any claim or action against the entities responsible for the contamination.
“The people of Wisconsin also deserve for their lawmakers to work relentlessly to clean up our water and hold polluters accountable,” said Shankland in a statement reacting to the analysis she requested. “Unfortunately, this bill would force municipalities to choose between much-needed funds in the short term — funds that could be used to purchase bottled water, for example — and the longer-term assistance that DNR is authorized to provide under the Spills Law to address the source of the problem. To add insult to injury, the bill would take away the right to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up contamination.”
“Supporters of this bill claim it would provide aid to communities impacted by PFAS, but in reality, it would do just the opposite,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, “Not only would the bill let polluters off the hook, it would also jeopardize DNR’s ability to continue providing assistance to impacted communities under the Spills Law.”
The bill, authored by Rep. Elijah Behnke (R-Oconto). Behnke said in his testimony in favor of the bill that “the contamination of PFAS is the worst in my district,” and added that clean water is not a partisan issue. His testimony made no mention of the other aspects of the bill.
Also testifying in favor of the bill was Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s Scott Manley. He highlighted what the environmentalists criticized, citing the importance of making sure that any municipality that received a part of the $10 million annually in grants could not “subsequently sue a third party for damages.” He expressed concern that the state put out a request for proposals looking for counsel that could litigate against companies that manufacture, distribute or use PFAS-containing substances. Behnke’s bill contains another provision WMC cited as important: making certain that local governments cannot regulate PFAS. The bill underscores that the state is the sole authority for PFAS standards and regulations.
Neither of those provisions are likely to draw any bipartisan votes as they make regulating and cleaning up PFAS more difficult for government while shielding polluters, despite Behnke’s claim. The Assembly passed the bill on June 22, voting along straight party lines with all Republicans in favor, all Democrats opposed.
In Congress, however, the current PFAS Action Act has been a bipartisan effort. Dingell, who is leading the bipartisan PFAS Action Act, along with Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, expressed her frustration with a lack of federal standards set for the chemicals in drinking water, as well as cleaning standards.
Her bill would designate two types of PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS—as hazardous substances, which would kick-start federal cleanup standards, particularly on military bases.
The Department of Defense has been hesitant to initiate cleanup of PFAS found on military installations, even if states pass their own PFAS standards, as the department does not have to follow state law.
“We have a truly national crisis, and other states are finding similar contaminations,” she said. “When you’re dealing with forever chemicals, it’s only a matter of time.”
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The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in research and advocacy work around agriculture, pollutants, and corporate accountability, has found PFAS at 703 military sites around the U.S. and estimates that more than 200 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with the chemicals.
EWG also hosted Wednesday’s conference.
Dingell added that regulating the chemicals should not stop with the EPA and that she’s working with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, (R-Pa.), to introduce a bill that would direct the Food and Drug Administration to ban the chemicals in cosmetics. A study published in June found high levels of PFAS in foundations, mascaras and lip products.
Fitzpatrick, who is a co-chair of the bipartisan PFAS Task Force with Kildee, said that another important factor in Congress’ work in regulating PFAS is holding corporations who contribute to PFAS pollution accountable.
Chemical companies such as DuPont, Chemours, Dow Chemical and 3M along with other businesses used PFAS to make nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, Scotchgard and other consumer products.
“These manufacturers that make tens of billions of dollars selling this chemical, they ought to be the ones paying for cleanup. It should not be borne by the taxpayer, anybody else,” Fitzpatrick said.
Kildee added that he is hoping more Republicans join in voting for the PFAS Action Act. In 2020, the House voted on a similar piece of legislation that passed 247-159, with 24 Republicans joining Democrats.
Rep. Chris Pappas, (D-N.H.), also stressed the need for his Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act to be included in the final passage of the upcoming transportation bill.
The act would aim to stop companies and manufacturers from dumping PFAS into water sources by requiring EPA to develop a water quality criteria for PFAS under the Clean Water Act within two years while also developing “effluent limitations guidelines and standards for all measurable PFAS or classes of PFAS within four years.”
“We need to pass the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act to ensure our communities have access to clean, safe drinking water,” Pappas said.
“The House has passed this legislation as part of our infrastructure package, and we’re calling for the Senate to include this legislation in their bill as well so we can get this done. It’s time to hold polluters accountable and take a big step towards clean and safe drinking water, which is one of the most basic guarantees of our government.”
There are currently no EPA regulations that restrict manufacturers and companies from discharging PFAS into the environment. The bill would also identify nine industries for which EPA must set standards.
Those industries include: organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers; pulp, paper, and paperboard; textile mills; electroplating; metal finishing; leather tanning and finishing; paint formulating; electrical and electrical components; and plastics molding and forming.
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