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PFAS, Climate Language in Defense Bill Faces Trump Veto Threat

July 11, 2019, 9:00 AM

The House is slated to take another step toward radically changing the way nonstick chemicals are regulated in the U.S., but a veto threat from President Donald Trump may thwart its efforts.

The White House’s potential veto of the House version of the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill (H.R. 2500) could also block legislators from an opportunity to address the threats posed to the military from a changing climate.

The White House’s move infuriated Democrats like Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who called it “one of the most outrageous veto threats I’ve seen in my years of Congress.”

Several provisions in the bill that prompted the veto threat involved more aggressive steps to deal with chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. The chemicals have been linked to numerous health problems, according to studies cited by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Taking It Seriously?

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that handles environmental cleanup issues, said he takes the veto threat with a grain of salt.

“The president will sign the bill and he will sign the bill with the environmental provisions in it,” he said. “The fact that he’s ignorant is a well-known fact. But he’ll come to understand and he will not hang himself on PFAS.”

But Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said the veto threat is an indicator that the House has moved too far away from traditional defense measures in moving its bill.

“The House has got their left blinker on and they’re going on the crazy train, left,“ Daines said.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who serves on Garamendi’s subcommittee, said he backs the veto threat. But, he said, the House bill is ultimately irrelevant because the real decision-making will happen when the two chambers meet in a conference committee to work out their differences.

“It will be all conference-driven,” he said.

The Senate’s version of the annual defense bill passed the upper chamber in June on an 86-8 vote. Udall said that vote indicates Congress would easily be able to enact a defense bill even if the president doesn’t back it.

“Congress must stand up to the president and override this veto,” the senator said at a July 10 news conference.

House Vote Soon

The House could pass the defense bill as early as July 11.

Because the bill is vital to the functioning of the military, it has been unofficially considered “must-pass” legislation, so many lawmakers seek to add amendments.

The PFAS chemicals pose a contamination problem for drinking water supplies because of their resistance to breaking down in the environment, an especially acute problem in on military bases, where the PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting foam during training exercises.

The White House’s main objections to the bill relate to what it says is underfunding of overseas military operations.

But it also criticized two provisions in the bill that would force the Pentagon to develop firefighting foam without PFAS chemicals and would also force it to provide clean water to farmers in areas with contamination problems.

Both of these provisions are in the Senate bill that already passed the upper chamber.

‘Only One Contributor’

In its official veto threat, the White House said it wasn’t confident it could develop a PFAS alternative within the bill’s deadline. It also said the bill’s clean water mandate “singles out” the Department of Defense, “only one contributor to this national issue.”

“This is flat-out wrong,” Udall said. “DoD is a large part of the problem. They use firefighting foams in massive concentrations over and over in limited areas.”

Udall’s state is one of the most acutely affected by the PFAS problem due to the presence of several active and defunct military bases there.

Art Schaap, a New Mexico dairy farmer who had a herd of about 4,000 cattle, couldn’t sell his milk, his cows, or his farm due to firefighting foam that contained PFAS, which was used at the nearby Cannon Air Force Base and contaminated the groundwater beneath his farm, Udall said.

That contaminated plume now threatens other dairy farmers, who have paid thousands of dollars to install their own filtration, he said.

The DoD says it doesn’t have legal authority to provide clean water to farmers whose livestock have only contaminated water to drink, but the bill would give it the authority, Udall said.

Schaap said it would have cost about $2 million to install filters for each of the 20 wells that his now-closed farm used to use and about $50,000 each year to maintain those filters.

PFAS Amendments

Before a potential veto override arises, the House must sort through the hundreds of proposed amendments to the defense bill.

At least 10 of these amendments deal with PFAS chemicals and four have bipartisan support, including:

  • a provision that would give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention $5 million more for an ongoing study on the health effects of PFAS;
  • a proposed ban on the use of PFAS in the packaging of prepackaged military meals;
  • the proposed ordering of an audit of the military’s response to PFAS contamination by the Government Accountability Office; and
  • a provision that would require the Pentagon to collaborate with states on PFAS cleanup.

Climate Amendments

The House will vote on nearly a half-dozen climate-related amendments on the floor. Republican senators, however, have been extremely leery of including a substantial amount of language on climate in the defense bill.

The House amendments include proposals that would direct the Defense Department to take climate change into account in its planning and would require it to put a price on essentially the replacement cost of buildings that could be impacted by sea level rise, flooding, wildfires, and weather events made worse by climate change.

One amendment by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) would require annual analysis by DoD of a climate vulnerability and risk assessment tool, to examine climate impacts on military networks, installations, and other assets.

Another amendment that the House Rules Committee sent up for floor debate, by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), would require the department to estimate the costs of climate impacts and provide that number as a line item in future Pentagon budgets.

Other pending climate amendments include one by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) that would require the secretary of Defense to account for projected sea level rise and flood risk when developing guidelines for improving climate resiliency at military facilities.

—With assistance from Pat Rizzuto.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bloombergenvironment.com; Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@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