Michigan lawmakers seize critical defense bill to tackle PFAS in drinking water

By: - June 27, 2019 6:00 am

The Pentagon | Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force.

WASHINGTON — Michigan lawmakers on Capitol Hill are eyeing must-pass defense legislation as a vehicle to crack down on dangerous chemicals that contaminate drinking water across the state.

Lawmakers in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House want to force the government to do more to study, regulate and clean up the ubiquitous and harmful chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters | Andrew Roth

They see the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a massive defense spending bill that’s expected to be one of the rare pieces of legislation to pass through both chambers of Congress this year — as a prime opportunity to address the chemicals. 

“This is a great vehicle for these amendments to ride on, so to speak,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) told the Advance in an interview this week. “This is important. The federal government needs to step up.” 

The man-made PFAS chemicals — used in everything from firefighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are prevalent on military bases and in other communities in Michigan and across the country. They have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems. 

Critics say EPA’s PFAS action plan too little, too late

The President Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but Michigan lawmakers and others argue the administration isn’t moving fast enough to regulate the chemicals and clean up contaminated areas. 

“The EPA is dragging their feet,” Peters said. “They’re not taking the action that they need to take. … We do need to set a standard to clean up to; then we need to start cleaning up.” 

A recent report found that Michigan has the most sites in the country known to be contaminated with PFAS, although experts say that’s likely because Michigan has done thorough testing whereas other states have not. Groundwater contamination by PFAS has been found in at least 33 states and affects an estimated 10 million Americans, the New York Times reported earlier this year. 

Report: Michigan has most PFAS sites in the nation

As the public has grown alarmed about the health impacts of PFAS, there’s become broad bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress to tackle the issue legislatively. 

Peters said he’s seen an “increasing awareness” by his colleagues that lawmakers “have to be aggressive in addressing it.” 

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow | Andrew Roth

The U.S. Senate’s version of the defense bill, which could pass as early as this week, is expected to include language supported by Peters, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and other lawmakers that would — among other things — require the U.S. EPA within two years to set a national drinking water standard for two types of PFAS that EPA has labeled “contaminants of emerging concern.” 

That could speed up EPA’s timeline significantly, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. 

Even if EPA were to make a regulatory determination to establish a drinking water standard this year, “It could easily take a decade before a standard was finalized and utilities were beginning to comply with that standard,” Faber said. 

The version of the bill that passes the U.S. Senate is also expected to include language to require the addition of PFAS to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which would require industries to report their releases of the chemicals into the environment. The legislation also would bar the military from buying firefighting foam made from PFAS chemicals. 

In the U.S. House, meanwhile, more than a dozen amendments dealing with PFAS have been filed ahead of that chamber’s vote on its version of the defense spending bill, which is expected after the July 4th recess. 

Oscoda residents vent to Air Force brass about PFAS worries

One amendment from U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) would authorize $45 million over five years for the U.S. Geological Survey to study PFAS contamination across the country. Another Kildee amendment would require the Government Accountability Office to review the Pentagon’s response to PFAS contamination in and around military bases. 

“Oscoda residents and families across the country have been impacted by dangerous PFAS chemicals and we need to do more to urgently clean up these toxins,” said Kildee. “I am happy to see Congress move forward to address clean-up of PFAS and take care of our communities. As the co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, I will continue to work in Congress to secure much-needed funds to protect public health.”

PFAS contamination has been detected at the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda, which is in Kildee’s district. The base was decommissioned in 1993, but PFAS chemicals continue to pollute the groundwater. 

Kildee lauded the House passage of a separate appropriations bill on Tuesday that would spend $60 million to clean up PFAS around prior military bases — which would be a $46 million boost from the previous year’s funding, if enacted. 

EPA issues weaker cleanup rules for toxic PFAS chemicals

Another amendment to the defense spending bill from U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), would bar the U.S. Defense Department’s logistics agency from using PFAS-containing substances to assemble or package meals ready-to-eat (MREs). 

Yet another Levin amendment would require that PFAS-containing materials are incinerated in a way that ensures that the chemicals aren’t emitted into the air. A bipartisan measure from Dingell and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) would require the Defense Department to enter into agreements with states to mitigate PFAS contamination. 

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Fred Upton | Andrew Roth

There are other PFAS amendments, too, although it’s still unclear which of the raft of total amendments offered will see votes on the House floor or make it into the legislation that’s expected to pass the chamber. The underlying bill that will head to the floor already contains some PFAS-related provisions.  

Given all the interest surrounding the issue, lawmakers and environmental advocates say they’re optimistic that legislation to address the chemicals will soon take effect. 

“If Congress did nothing more than help us understand where PFAS pollution is coming from and how far it has spread, that would reflect progress compared to what Congress has done in past years,” said Faber of EWG. 

And he’s hopeful that lawmakers will go much further than that. 

“The truth is, it’s probably the case that more than 100 million Americans are drinking PFAS-contaminated water and don’t know it.” 

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.