For The Record

U.S. House passes PFAS bill regulating ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

By: - July 21, 2021 6:38 pm

Georgia Congresswoman Nikema Williams says she voted for legislation she expects to help clean up “forever chemicals,” which pose a direct threat through drinking water to public health, and introduce stronger protections against future pollution. Getty images

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 241-183with 23 Republicans joining Democrats in voting for it. Georgia’s delegation split along party lines, except for Pooler Republican Buddy Carter who was counted as not voting but earlier voiced concerns about the bill.

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.

Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta Democrat, said the legislation promises to clean up “forever chemicals,” which pose a direct threat to public health, and introduce stronger protections against future pollution.

“Too many children and families around Georgia and across the country are being exposed right now to dangerous chemical contamination that can have devastating impacts on their health and well-being,” Williams said. “We know that PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, asthma, liver disease and more, but for too long these chemicals have been allowed to linger in our communities as big corporations put their profits before people.”

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.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, (D-Mich.), along with Rep. Fred Upton, (R-Mich.), worked to attract 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.”

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.

With the Superfund designation, the Department of Defense would be required to start cleaning up those sites.

The Pentagon reported in 2018 PFAS or PFOS was detected in groundwater exceeding lifetime health advisory levels at two Georgia military bases, Robins Air Force Base near Macon and Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta.

Local leaders and community activists have expressed their frustration with the defense department stalling cleanup sites during several congressional hearings. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in research and advocacy work involving 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.

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.”

Georgia Recorder Editor John McCosh contributed to this report.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

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