Citing ongoing water contamination from cancer-causing PFAS chemicals, a lack of communication among federal agencies, and public health concerns, members of Congress pledged Monday in Montgomery County to push the federal government to act.
Adding to a recent surge of pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to swiftly set a safe drinking water limit for the chemicals that have contaminated dozens of communities nationwide, the lawmakers said Congress would soon hold hearings on PFAS-related legislation. At least 15 bills are currently up for discussion, including one that would require the EPA to set a PFAS drinking water limit known as a maximum contaminant level or MCL.
“We’re not going to wait for them any longer to act. We’re going to force that issue. Congress is going to act,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D., Mich.), who with Rep. Paul Tonko (D., N.Y.) visited contaminated military and well sites in Horsham with Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Pa.) on Monday. The three are members of the congressional PFAS task force chaired by Kildee and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.).
Kildee said he believed legislation could make the EPA move more quickly. The agency announced early this year that it would begin the process of determining whether to create a maximum contaminant level, predicting it will take several years before an MCL is in place. In the last few months, critics who say that is too long have amplified calls for the agency to act quickly.
“We must accept the fact that we have a serious problem,” Dean said. “We were waiting for EPA to come forward with a maximum contaminant level. They are slow to do that, and it might be years before [they] do that, so in Congress, we’re not going to wait any longer."
Dean said polluted water is still flowing off the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Horsham and contaminated soil remains stored on base.
“Every time there’s a bad storm — think [Sunday], for example — PFAS-polluted water flows off the base, still,” Dean said. “We haven’t been able to stop the ongoing contamination. That is one of the urgent things that my colleagues and I ask for.”
Residents in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington Townships learned five years ago that their drinking water was contaminated with the chemicals, which were used in firefighting foams on former naval bases in Willow Grove and Warminster. The contamination has spread to other towns in Montgomery and Bucks Counties; at least 22 other towns have some level of PFAS in drinking water.
Similar contamination in Michigan, New York, and other states has caused alarm for hundreds of thousands of residents. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to cancers, reproductive issues, and other health problems.
Tonko, who chairs the House subcommittee on the environment and climate change, said he would hold hearings on the bills, after which lawmakers would work to amend them, and anticipated they may be able to bring bills to a vote this year. The three lawmakers said they are pushing for immediate funding to clean up contamination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has promised PFAS bills will be moved, and the legislation has bipartisan support, “which significantly increases the likelihood of being able to get something passed into law," Kildee said.
Also Monday, the members of Congress held a round-table discussion, hearing from more than a dozen others, including lawmakers and representatives from state and federal agencies.
“Our residents should bear no cost,” said Bill Walker, Horsham Township manager, where the local water authority has worked to remove all traces of PFAS from drinking water supplies. “All we want is for our community to be turned over to us the way it was before the military came to our town.”
In the absence of federal action, some states have begun their own processes to address the contamination. Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan are among states working on setting their own drinking water limits.