U.S. House panel approves legislation to clean up toxic ‘forever chemicals’
Fire fighters still use foam to put out petroleum fires like this one at an ExxonMobil petroleum storage facility in 2003 in New York City. The foam can contain polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down easily and have contaminated ground water. (Photo by Mike Hvozda/USCG/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee has approved major bipartisan legislation that aims to reduce Americans’ exposure to toxic chemicals in air, water and consumer products.
The bill, the PFAS Action Act of 2021, led by Michigan Reps. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat and Fred Upton, a Republican, was approved 33-20 late Wednesday. It would tackle the contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, by designating the chemicals as hazardous substances, which kick-starts federal cleanup standards.
“PFAS contamination is a pressing issue for countless communities, and while the EPA under President Biden is working hard to address the issue, it is still playing catch up after four years of inaction,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said in his opening remarks.
“One year after the House passed this bill, we still don’t have a drinking water standard, a test rule, or a hazardous substance designation for even a single PFAS chemical.”
Similar PFAS legislation passed the House in 2020, on a 247-159 vote, including the support of 24 Republicans. The Senate, which was controlled by Republicans, did not take up the bill.
PFAS can be found in drinking water, soil and air across the country, and are a growing concern. The chemicals are linked to various health concerns such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer.
The bill would designate two of the most studied PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, as hazardous substances. That would spark cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or the Superfund law.
“They are known as forever chemicals because we cannot get rid of them,” Dingell said. “They are harmful, man-made chemicals.”
Chemical companies such as DuPont and 3M along with other businesses used PFAS to make nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, Scotchgard and other consumer products.
“PFAS contamination represents a clear and present danger to Michigan families, and what happened in Parchment a number of years ago is proof that we need an all-hands-on-deck effort to protect both human health and our environment,” Upton said in a statement. “Clean drinking water is a top priority for communities in Southwest Michigan and across the country — period.”
The water system in the town of Parchment, Mich., in 2018 became the first in the state with PFAS results over the EPA’s lifetime health advisory level, according to the state.
Republicans on the committee submitted 18 amendments to the bill, but none were accepted.
Rep. David McKinley (R-W.V.) raised concerns that the bill gives airports an exemption from a Superfund designation, and they would essentially be free from cleanup liabilities.
“Obviously this bill was trying to do airports a favor, but why not our water systems?” he asked, referring to how water utilities will be left with the burden of cleaning up contamination that they did not cause.
The bill includes an annual $200 million grant to water utilities and wastewater facilities to treat PFAS over four years.
Lawmakers have argued for an exemption for airports because those facilities were required to use firefighting foam containing the chemicals under Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
If passed, the bill would also allow EPA’s administrator to make the decisions to designate all PFAS — some 9,000 chemicals — or just certain types of PFAS as hazardous, within five years of the bill being enacted.
It would also require EPA to create drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS within two years as well as designate the two chemicals as hazardous air pollutants.
Democrats in particular wanted PFOA and PFOS to receive a hazardous designation because it would require military installations to clean up contamination. Many air force bases and military sites used the chemicals in their firefighting foam for training exercises, and the chemicals seeped into the water supplies of nearby communities.
In 2015, the communities of Widefield, Fountain and Security in El Paso County detected levels of contamination in drinking water well above federal limits. The chemicals have been linked to firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base. Findings of state tests performed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did not find PFAS levels in drinking water that violated a federal health advisory, but they did identify elevated levels in some groundwater sources, including the mouth of Sand Creek in Commerce City, where many industrial sites treat and dump wastewater.
Michigan, which has been active in testing for the chemicals, has found PFAS contamination on at least 10 bases, but the Department of Defense has been hesitant to initiate cleanup as it does not have to follow state law. Local and community leaders expressed their frustration with DOD’s slow response to cleaning up the chemicals during a recent U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.
The Government Accountability Office found that in fiscal 2021, the Defense Department would need more than $2.1 billion for PFAS cleanups and investigations at its military installations.
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 PFAS.
“We need deadlines to ensure that the EPA will take the necessary steps to reduce PFAS releases into our air, land and water, to filter PFAS out of tap water and to clean up legacy PFAS pollution, especially near Department of Defense facilities,” Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs said in a statement.
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