Environment & Energy Report

Congress May Force EPA’s Hand on Nonstick Chemicals (1)

March 6, 2019, 5:24 PMUpdated: March 6, 2019, 7:15 PM

Momentum in Congress is building for legislation that would force the EPA to act earlier than planned on a class of toxic nonstick chemicals that have contaminated drinking water across the country.

Bills in both the House and the Senate (H.R. 535 and S. 638) would force the Environmental Protection Agency to place some kinds of these chemicals on a list of hazardous substances, making it easier to recover cleanup costs from the companies that made them. Both bills have bipartisan support.

The chemicals at issue are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, which were manufactured by 3M, DowDuPont, and other companies.

Additionally, Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, said he would favor going a step further and passing legislation that forces the EPA to enact legally enforceable drinking water standards.

They’ve been linked to numerous health problems and are extremely resistant to biodegrading, which has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Rouda and other lawmakers said the administration’s timelines for regulating PFAS contamination are too unspecific.

“We want to work with the EPA, but time is of the essence,” Rouda told reporters after his subcommittee held a March 6 hearing on the PFAS problem.

‘Diverse and Sometimes at Odds’

David Ross, the agency’s top water regulator, acknowledged growing concern over the chemicals at the hearing. He said his agency is moving toward both placing PFAS on the hazardous substances list and enacting drinking water standards.

But he warned against letting fears of PFAS lead to a rush into new regulations, especially given how much scientific uncertainty exists.

“Despite what’s been reported in the press, views on how to address PFAS are diverse and sometimes at odds,” Ross said.

He also said a nationwide drinking water standard for these chemicals would require every water utility in the country to do testing on a quarterly basis, regardless of whether they have PFAS contamination or not.

Ross said this testing alone would impose approximately $60 million to $100 million in new annual costs nationwide—costs that ultimately water-bill payers would have to bear.

When and Why

The EPA has said it will make a final decision about whether or not to set a nationwide drinking water standard by the end of this year. But that’s not soon enough for Rouda and many others in Congress.

They’re not only asking when the EPA will ultimately enact new PFAS regulations, but why the agency hasn’t moved more quickly.

Four Democratic senators sent letters March 6 to EPA chief Andrew Wheeler and other Cabinet officials seeking more information about the nature of the debate over PFAS within the Trump administration.

In the letters, the senators specifically mention a set of guidelines the EPA is developing that would detail how to clean up PFAS-contaminated groundwater.

The guidelines have been sent to the White House for interagency review, but have been stalled there for months, and the senators want to know why.

The letters were sent by the ranking Democrats of four committees: Delaware’s Tom Carper of Environment and Public Works; Washington’s Patty Murray of Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Michigan’s Gary Peters of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Rhode Island’s Jack Reed of Armed Services.

On-The-Ground Effects

But while the Congress investigates and weighs legislative action, more and more communities across the country learn that their drinking water sources contain PFAS at levels of concern.

A handful of people from these communities, who live in areas with unusually high rates of cancer, thyroid illnesses, and other diseases, attended the House Oversight hearing.

“People are suffering,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of the subcommittee.

She added that she’s concerned about the use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foam on runways at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in her district.

Penelope Fenner-Crisp, a toxicologist and former science adviser in the EPA’s chemicals office, said PFAS chemicals are just the latest in a long line of human-created substances with harmful environmental effects that are only fully understood decades after they’ve been widely used.

“The disappointing aspect about this group of chemicals is that we have known for decades that we have a big problem with ubiquitous and uncontrolled environmental exposures to them,” Fenner-Crisp told Bloomberg Environment. “We’re not very fast learners.“

—With assistance from Steven Gibb.

(Adds additional reporting throughout)

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Susan Bruninga at sbruninga@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com

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