U.S. House passes PFAS bill regulating ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water
A cup full of single-use, ion-exchange, gel-based media sits atop valves that control a ground water remediation system being used to remediate polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from groundwater at the fire training area of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020. U.S. Air Force personnel from the 88th Air Base Wing Civil Engineer Group are leading the pilot study of new remediation techniques that can remove and destroy the PFAS. PFAS are a group of chemicals, some of which were formerly used in aircraft fire fighting foam. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)
WASHINGTON—The U.S. House Wednesday passed bipartisan legislation that would regulate toxic chemicals found in drinking water, as well as designate two types of those toxic chemicals as hazardous substances that would spark federal cleanup standards.
The bill, H.R. 2467, also known as the PFAS Action Act of 2021, passed 241-183, with 23 Republicans joining Democrats in voting for it. Among the Republicans voting in favor was Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a member of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, said the PFAS Action Act spoke at a news conference in favor of the act citing the problems in Madison, which is in his district.
“In Madison, Wisconsin, PFAS chemicals have been discovered in every single one of our city wells,” Pocan said. “Fifty other cities across the state have also found the same chemicals in their water. For far too long we have allowed these toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, infertility, and more to pollute our air, land, and water. That’s why I proudly voted for the PFAS Action Act, which will finally ban these toxic forever chemicals from our communities, introduce stricter protections against PFAS pollution, and hold polluters accountable.”
The legislation would direct EPA to start the regulatory process for regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water and making the decision on whether to set drinking water standards for certain types of PFAS or to regulate the entire class, which ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 substances.
“PFAS chemicals are an urgent threat to public health,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, (D-Mich.), said on the House floor. “Now almost every American has PFAS coursing through their blood after generations of using the chemicals.”
Chemical companies such as DuPont and Dow Chemical along with other businesses used the so-called forever chemicals to make nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, Scotchgard and other consumer products.
Dingell, along with Rep. Fred Upton, (R-Mich.), has worked to garner bipartisan support for the bill. Similar PFAS legislation passed the House last year by a 247-159 vote, with 24 Republicans joining Democrats.
That bill then died in a Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), has not publicly stated whether he will bring the bill passed by the House on Wednesday to the Senate floor for a vote and there is currently no Senate version of it.
The Biden administration did issue a statement of administration policy in support of passage of the House measure.
“Addressing these ‘forever chemicals’ remains one of the most complex environmental challenges of our day due to the number of chemicals, the impacts on human health, and the widespread use of PFAS and their ubiquity in the environment,” the statement said. “The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to ensure that these actions are taken in a thoughtful, transparent, and timely manner and are supported by the best science to restore confidence in our efforts to protect the health of the American people.”
Studies have linked PFAS contamination to various health problems such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer.
Upton said that while the bill was not perfect, it was a start to regulating the toxic chemicals out of drinking water.
“It needs to see a number of constructive changes before it reaches the president’s desk,” he said.
The Michigan lawmakers have pushed for two of the most studied PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, to be listed as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or the Superfund law, so that federal cleanup standards can be applied to military installations that have PFAS contamination.
“The Pentagon’s not going to prioritize cleanup of these military sites until these chemicals are listed as the hazardous substances that they are,” Dingell said.
In Michigan alone, there are at least 10 military bases with PFAS contamination, but the Department of Defense has been hesitant to initiate cleanup as it does not have to follow state law. However, with the Superfund designation, the Department of Defense would be required to start cleaning up those sites.
Local leaders and community activists have expressed their frustration with DOD stalling cleanup sites during several congressional hearings. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in research and advocacy work around agriculture, pollutants, and corporate accountability, has found PFAS contamination in more than 2,800 communities, including 2,411 drinking water systems and 328 military installations across the country.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, (D-Mich.), said on the House floor Wednesday that Michiganders “are concerned about increasing levels of PFAS and other toxic chemicals that we’re continuing to find in our drinking water.”
House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, (D-Md.), said that every House lawmaker should be concerned about PFAS contamination.
“It affects my district and every single congressional district in our country is affected by PFAS,” he said on the House floor. “The bill ensures that EPA finally takes measures to prevent future releases of PFAS into our environment and clean them up where such contamination has occurred.”
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Republicans who voted against the bill argued that Congress should not force EPA to craft regulations, and lawmakers should let the agency develop standards on its own. They also said that the bill would burden water utility systems and could leave those businesses open for possible liability.
States Newsroom has reported that local water utilities have stepped up their lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital to push for exemptions from Superfund designation, citing fears of liability over PFAS contamination in drinking water.
Rep. Tim Walberg, (R-Mich.) also argued that water utilities would be held liable for Superfund cleanup and that there are several provisions in the bill that EPA is currently in the process of completing on its own.
“Make no mistake, I believe this is a serious problem,” he said on the House floor. “But the bill before us today, although severely well intended, goes too far. It represents the largest expansion of regulatory authority at the EPA or perhaps any federal agency in decades.”
Rep. John Joyce, (R-Penn.), argued that using a hazardous designation for the chemicals “has the potential to slow down the cleanup process of PFAS and divert resources from current high priority public health issues.”
Joyce said that Congress should not interfere and should “let government agencies do their work.”
Melanie Conklin contributed to this story from Wisconsin.
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