Public health and environmental advocates celebrated a victory Friday as the U.S. House approved an amendment in the annual defense spending bill that would designate a class of “forever chemicals” as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law.
The amendment was one of several provisions targeting toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—collectively called PFAS—that the Democratic-controlled House passed this week as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.
Activists, scientists, and Democratic lawmakers have long raised alarm about PFAS contamination in the drinking water of up to 110 million Americans and demanded national regulations. Some studies have tied the chemicals to low infant birth weights, immune system issues, various types of cancer, and thyroid problems.
“Today marks a big win for the millions of Americans who have been drinking water contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals,” Bart Johnsen-Harris, clean water advocate for Environment America, said in a statement Friday. “We commend the House for taking critical action on this pressing issue.”
If approved by the Senate, the designation under the Superfund law—officially calledthe Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CLERCLA)—would empower the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force those responsible for the pollution to pursue or pay for cleaning up contaminated sites.
“The amendment is similar to a bipartisan bill introduced in both chambers of Congress by Michigan lawmakers earlier this year,” The Detroit News reported Friday.
Among the bill’s sponsors is Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee, who said to the newspaper after the vote that “this one is really important because it gives us the mechanism that we need to force public and private [property] owners to clean up these dangerous chemicals.”
“The irony is that we have to enforce federal law upon our own agencies to get them to act,” Kildee added. “It’s a big step because for the first time there’s recognition that these chemicals are dangerous, and we’re actually going to have law to protect the public.”
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) detailed in a statement Friday, the package of amendments approved by the House also would:
- Quickly phase out military use of PFAS in firefighting foam;
- End the use of PFAS in military food packaging;
- Expand water quality monitoring for PFAS;
- Ensure proper incineration of military PFAS wastes;
- Accelerate PFAS cleanups at Defense Department facilities;
- Provide an additional $5 million for an study;
- Require the Government Accountability Office to study Defense Department cleanup efforts; and
- Create an online health database for military members.
Additionally, the provisions would limit the discharge of industrial PFAS into drinking water; enable the Defense Department to provide clean water to farmers near contaminated military installations; fund the cleanup of water near military sites as well as blood tests for military firefighters; bar the use of firefighting foams with PFAS in military training exercises; and grant the National Guard access to funding.
Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said that “although these amendments will not address all of the challenges posed by PFAS pollution, they represent an important first step.”
Faber praised House leaders and Democratic Reps. Kildee, Debbie Dingell (Mich.), Madeleine Dean (Penn.), Chris Pappas (N.H.), and Mike Levin (Calif.) “for making PFAS a priority” through their amendments. Reps. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), and Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) also put forth PFAS provisions that passed the House under the NDAA.
Environment America’s Johnsen-Harris also applauded House lawmakers—including Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.)—for their efforts to push through the “sweeping” package of amendments, which must now survive a conference with the Senate. As Politico‘s Annie Snider noted on Twitter Friday, the upper chamber “has passed its own ambitious—but very different—PFAS package.”
Johnsen-Harris highlighted phasing out the military’s use of PFAS, the Superfund designation, and limits on discharges into drinking water as “priorities for the final package.” He added: “Time is of the essence. Each day we delay is a day these poisons threaten our children.”
As Genna Reed, a lead science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post Thursday, “These are all commonsense measures that should have already been in place to protect us from these chemicals, but because of a failure of our regulatory system and industry hiding scientific data on its products, we have waited too long for policy remedies.”
However, the fate of some House provisions could be determined at the conference by the Trump administration—which, earlier this week, threatened to veto the entire NDAA over two House measures related to PFAS: cleaning up contaminated agricultural waters and phasing out the use of firefighting foams that contain the chemicals.
In response to President Donald Trump’s veto threat, Dingell tweeted Wednesday, “Perhaps he should have to bathe, drink, or swim in some of the water our communities do.”
Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter, responding to Trump in a statement Friday, declared that “by opposing the push to clean up PFAS and curb their use, the Trump administration is saying one thing: they want toxic chemicals in our water and food.”
“Congress must stand strong in their efforts to address the PFAS crisis to protect communities across the country that face water and food contamination from these toxins. We need the polluter to pay,” Hauter added. “It’s beyond time to start the work to address decades of exposure to these toxic chemicals without any safeguards. Our country deserves an urgent and comprehensive response to this crisis—not Trump’s shifty marooning of our water and food safety.”