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Environment & Energy Report

House Defense Vote Sets Up Bicameral Faceoff Over PFAS, Climate

July 12, 2019, 5:30 PM

A decisive clash between the House and the Senate over chemical and climate issues is on the horizon, as both chambers have now passed their versions of an annual defense spending bill.

The House passed its version of the bill (H.R. 2500) July 12 on a 220-197 vote, largely along party lines.

Although primarily aimed at reauthorizing defense programs, it also includes provisions that would significantly alter how the Defense Department addresses nonstick chemical contamination and would also require the Pentagon to better account for the ways climate change is affecting military operations.

The Senate already passed its own version of the bill (S. 1790) last month, on a bipartisan 86-8 vote.

That bill also contains environmental measures, including a mandate for the EPA to enact the first nationwide standards for chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

These chemicals are potentially toxic and have contaminated groundwater supplies on and near military bases, where they have been used in firefighting foam.

Amendments Adopted

The House bill includes an amendment that would force the EPA to add PFAS chemicals to its list of toxic pollutants under the Clean Water Act. This means factories, wastewater treatment plants, and other businesses would have to remove these chemicals from their effluent.

This amendment was adopted despite objections from the water utility industry.

The House adopted another amendment that would require the Pentagon to assume that sea levels will be rising in the future when it assesses flooding risks. Both of these amendments were adopted by voice votes.

The two bills now head to a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will gather to hammer out a compromise that both the House and the Senate can accept. Any or all of the environmental measures in the two bills could be omitted from the final version that heads to the president’s desk.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services subcommittee that handles environmental cleanup, said a bicameral compromise may ultimately water down the legislation, but he said there will definitely be some type of PFAS language in the final bill.

“I think there’s a lot of consensus in both the House and the Senate” on that, he told Bloomberg Environment. “But some of the directives to EPA may have trouble sticking. You can’t force an agency to rush things too much or they may not use good science and good research.”

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the chairman of another House Armed Services subcommittee, said the conference committee likely won’t complete its work until after Labor Day and possibly even closer to late October.

White House Threats

President Donald Trump has already threatened to veto the House defense bill, and specifically called out two PFAS provisions in his veto threat.

One would force the Pentagon to stop using firefighting foam with PFAS chemicals and to develop a non-PFAS alternative, and another would force it to provide clean water to farmers in areas with contamination problems.

The White House said it wasn’t confident it could develop a non-PFAS alternative within the bill’s deadline.

It also said the provision requiring the Pentagon to give farmers clean water “singles out” the Department of Defense, when in actuality there are others also responsible for PFAS pollution.

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

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; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com