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Environment & Energy Report

Congress Quickly Losing Patience With EPA on PFAS (Corrected)

Oct. 23, 2019, 6:11 PMUpdated: Oct. 28, 2019, 7:40 PM

The EPA was on the receiving end of bipartisan criticism from lawmakers Oct. 23 over its process for regulating PFAS chemicals in drinking water, another sign that Congress may be moving toward wresting this process away from the agency.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said the agency is moving too slowly to set minimum standards for the presence of these chemicals in water.

The Environmental Protection Agency has promised to issue a determination this year on whether it will set these standards, but exactly what those standards would be might not come for months, if not years, afterward.

“The first step is just to decide to regulate,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said at a committee hearing. “That doesn’t seem like a hard step.”

“I’m going to add my voice to the level of concern on this,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said.

Following the Process

Charlotte Bertrand, the head of policy within the EPA’s water office, didn’t answer senators’ yes-or-no questions about whether the agency will regulate PFAS chemicals in water, citing the deliberative process laid out by federal drinking water law that the EPA must follow.

“We can’t prejudge the outcome of a regulatory process,” she said. “That would make our decision indefensible.”

These chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have diverse applications and are found in Teflon, Scotchgard, and many kinds of firefighting foam.

PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because they resist breaking down in the environment. They can accumulate within drinking water aquifers.

Scientists and regulators have grown more worried about how ingesting PFAS chemicals via water can affect human health.

Congress Stepping In

Congress has already shown signs that it is willing to intervene and force the EPA to move faster.

The Senate earlier this year passed a defense authorization bill, S. 1790, that would force the EPA to establish nationwide standards within two years for two of the many PFAS chemicals that can be found in the environment. That bill is currently in a conference committee with the House.

If the provision is ultimately stripped from the defense bill, however, lawmakers will likely have another opportunity next year to attach it to a broader legislative package.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the committee, said he plans to maintain recent tradition and pass a broad water infrastructure bill before the end of next year.

Congress has passed these types of water bills every other year since 2014. They often authorize dozens of large infrastructure projects for the Army Corps of Engineers and also include some water policy provisions.

Barrasso wouldn’t set a timetable for taking up this water package, but he did say his first priority right now is ensuring floor passage of S. 2302, a large transportation bill that his committee approved in August.

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; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com