Defense bill bars PFAS in firefighting foam in 5 years, but advocates say overall protections are too weak

By: - December 10, 2019 2:44 pm

Foam products used by firefighters contain PFAS | U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

A compromise over a critical national defense bill includes some actions on PFAS, but some Democrats and environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough.

Both chambers of Congress have been negotiating the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) since the summer and are expected to vote on it by the end of the year. President Donald Trump previously threatened to veto it over environmental provisions regarding harmful chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

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.

“The right way to tackle PFAS in our tap water is to stop further discharges into our drinking water, and force polluters and the Pentagon to pay their fair share for cleanup – and none of that will happen until Congress acts,” said Environmental Working Group lobbyist Scott Faber. “The NDAA is not our only chance to end PFAS pollution and hold polluters and the Defense Department accountable but it’s our best chance.”

The Washington, D.C.-based group pointed to parts of the bill being dropped that would have:

  • Restricted PFAS discharges from manufacturers into drinking water supplies under the Clean Water Act.
  • Required water utilities to reduce the amount of PFAS in tap water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Designated PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law that requires cleanup of the most contaminated sites.

However, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) touted several provisions of the bill tackling PFAS during a conference call Tuesday morning, noting the chemicals are “a significant issue for us in Michigan.”

The negotiated bill stops the Department of Defense (DOD) from buying firefighting foam that contains PFAS by 2023 and phases it out completely by 2024. It also bans such foam from being used in training exercises. Peters noted that this is a concern at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

Peters in Oscoda
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson | Michael Gerstein

“We know … that the cost of cleaning up this contamination is very high,” he said. “Certainly the human cost, first and foremost that people are exposed to these chemicals when you try to clean it up. It is not cheap. So our first focus should be to try to prevent more people from getting into the environment.”

Peters said that he secured language for increased coordination between DOD and states on PFAS remediation and data. There’s also $2 million for advance computer modeling to improve the understanding of PFAS.

“We’re trying to continue to push the DOD to act aggressively, particularly in areas like Oscoda, where this has been going on for far too long; we’re trying to get them to act much quicker,” Peters said.

The legislation provides the U.S. Geological Survey with more resources to develop new advanced technologies to detect PFAS and conduct nationwide sampling for PFAS in the environment, based on the bipartisan “PFAS Detection Act” that Peters reintroduced with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) earlier this year. PFAS will be added to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, as well.

“Of course, there’s no disputing the fact that the Michigan is the Great Lakes State and water is absolutely critical,” Peters said. “Also, there’s no disputing the fact that right now we have over 200 sites that have been identified with PFAS contamination, which is the highest of any state in the country. However, we believe that one reason for that is the fact that we just been looking for more than other states, so this is an issue that really impacts every state in the union.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin at a town hall in East Lansing, Oct. 2, 2019 | Anna Liz Nichols

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, also praised the deal.

“While we didn’t get everything we wanted related to PFAS, this is the first time the Pentagon has been required to do anything more than just ‘study’ PFAS,” Slotkin said.  “And that is a step in the right direction.”

But U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called the bill a “missed opportunity.”

“A majority of members in both the House and the Senate support the designation of all 4,000 PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. But a much more modest measure – one that would provide a path to designate just two PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances, ensuring cleanup at federally contaminated sites and in communities across the country – was unable to be included in the Conference Report. It should be lost on no one that both former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler have said they would make that designation for those same two PFAS chemicals,” Carper said.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more.