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Environment & Energy Report

Senate Bill Would Have EPA Regulate PFAS in Drinking Water (1)

June 19, 2019, 2:27 PMUpdated: June 19, 2019, 8:59 PM

A Senate committee unanimously approved legislation June 19 that would force the EPA to set new standards for a prevalent nonstick chemical in drinking water.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved an amendment to a broader defense bill (S. 1790) that would force the Environmental Protection Agency to set a safety threshold for chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

PFAS chemicals are used in nonstick coatings, firefighting foams, and some food packaging.

Some types of PFAS chemicals have caused contamination problems in drinking water supplies in dozens of cities and towns across the country. They’re an especially acute problem on and near military bases, where airfields have been doused in firefighting foam during fires and drills, with the chemicals then seeping underground and into aquifers.

“It’s regrettable to me that the EPA has been dragging its feet on this issue, to the extent that Congress is compelled to act,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said at the June 19 committee markup.

Interplay

The Safe Drinking Water Act—one of the landmark environmental laws enacted in the 1970s—lays out a process the Environmental Protection Agency must go through to enact new standards for a contaminant.

The EPA is planning on taking the next step in that process—a determination of whether to regulate two PFAS chemicals—in December.

This amendment to the defense bill would essentially skirt that process. It would not only take the decision of whether to regulate PFAS chemicals out of the EPA’s hands, but it would also give the agency a hard deadline to enact those regulations.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate committee, said Congress can change any of the rules it places on federal agencies at any time.

“There are branches of government and, constitutionally, the legislative branch is coming up with what we think ought to be done,” he told reporters. “So we think it’s an important step.”

Utilities Worried

But it’s not necessarily a step the water utility industry would like Congress to take.

The American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, two of the industry’s biggest advocates on Capitol Hill, declined to take a position on the legislation but wrote about their concerns to Barrasso’s committee June 18.

“Any departure from this established process for a particular contaminant or family of contaminants should be minimized,” G. Tracy Mehan III and Diane VanDe Hei, respectively the leaders of the two groups, said in the letter.

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; Steven Gibb at sgibb@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com