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PFAS regulation plan gets weakened by Congress in latest spending bill

The national defense spending bill is set to be passed with some but not all of the provisions local lawmakers wanted for chemical cleanup.

The sign for Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, Horsham, PA, May 24, 2019. PFAS chemicals used on the base contaminated public drinking water.
The sign for Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, Horsham, PA, May 24, 2019. PFAS chemicals used on the base contaminated public drinking water.Read moreBeverly Schaefer/For the Inquire

Area lawmakers leveled sharp criticism at congressional leaders who derailed plans that would have required manufacturers to control discharges of PFAS into drinking-water supplies, regulated the chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, and set a two-year deadline for a federal standard to regulate PFAS in tap water.

The measures had been included in the House version of the national defense spending bill, finalized Monday night, and the lawmakers hoped to use it to lay the groundwork for comprehensive federal regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Bucks), co-chair of the congressional PFAS Task Force, said the lack of consensus on the issues was “unacceptable.”

"Lawmakers from both parties have a solemn obligation to come together as soon as possible to pass a separate PFAS package that addresses the legislative items that the [National Defense Authorization Act] conference report does not,” Fitzpatrick said.

The defense spending bill does include the most PFAS-related legislation passed to date. But the changes, coming after months of negotiations, mean there will continue to be no federal regulations for the chemicals, which are linked to cancers and other health problems.

Among other things, the provisions set to be in the final version of the bill will phase out the military’s use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging, expand monitoring for PFAS in drinking and groundwater, and require reporting of PFAS in the Toxic Release Inventory.

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The bill also requires the military to use the most stringent PFAS cleanup standards available in making agreements with states, meaning it would be required to use state regulations in states that have passed stricter standards than the Environmental Protection Agency’s current advisory.

Much of the contamination nationwide has come from or been linked to military bases, where the firefighting foam containing PFAS was used for decades. In the Philadelphia area, contaminated drinking water near the former Warminster and Willow Grove Naval Air Bases was discovered to be widespread in 2016.

In July, the Trump administration included some PFAS measures in a list of provisions it wanted eliminated from the defense spending bill, threatening a veto if they remained.

The measures ultimately removed from the final bill had been passed in the House version. Democrats said Senate Republicans would not negotiate.

“In failing to clean up PFAS in our drinking water, Senate Republicans are siding with corporate polluters,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D., Mich.) “The Defense Department and the Trump administration’s EPA have failed to act with an urgency that matches the scale of this public health crisis.”

House Democrats will try again with a separate package of PFAS bills that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said Monday he would bring to a floor vote in January.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.) said he and other Democrats would continue to push for passage of the PFAS package.

“Failure to act,” Boyle said, “will continue to inflict dangerous consequences on communities struggling to deal with this crisis across the nation.”

Among other PFAS-related provisions still in the defense spending bill are:

  1. $100 million per year allotted from 2020 to 2024 to monitor PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

  2. The Department of Defense must provide blood testing for military firefighters.

  3. Any manufacturer that has made PFAS since 2011 must submit reports to the EPA by 2023.

  4. The EPA must publish interim guidance for safe disposal of PFAS.

  5. The EPA will research the effects of PFAS on human health and the environment, develop new tools for identifying the chemicals in water, solids, and air, and evaluate cleanup methods.

  6. By October 2021, the military will no longer use food packaging that contains PFAS.

  7. The U.S. Geological Survey will create a standard for detecting PFAS in the environment and do nationwide sampling of soil and bodies of water.