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Advocates say PFAS bills would tighten federal control over chemicals

Legislation aims to improve detection, spur cooperation between federal and state governments

  • Jon Hurdle
FILE PHOTO: The Horsham Air Guard Station in Bucks County, Pa.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact Pennsylvania

FILE PHOTO: The Horsham Air Guard Station in Bucks County, Pa.

Clean water advocates in Pennsylvania are welcoming proposed new federal legislation to curb the presence of toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water and the wider environment.

State environmental groups said two bills introduced in the U.S. Senate last week would help identify where drinking water is contaminated by the chemicals – which have been linked to illnesses including cancer, high cholesterol and development problems in children – and would improve coordination between state and federal authorities in cleaning them up.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), would provide more public funds for detection by the U.S. Geological Service, and require the federal government to work with state regulators to clean up PFAS chemicals from in and around military bases, where high concentrations have been found.

The PFAS Accountability Act of 2018 would direct federal officials to cooperate with a state if its governor requests help in testing, monitoring or removing the chemicals from a current or former federal facility.

The PFAS Detection Act of 2018 would provide $45 million over five years for the USGS to conduct a nationwide survey of PFAS and report its findings to Congress, federal agencies and state regulators.

The bills are the latest federal response to growing public concern about the chemicals that were once used in non-stick cookware, flame-retardant fabrics, and fire-fighting foam. They have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers, but persist in drinking water in many locations.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency began a nationwide tour of affected sites such as the Horsham/Warrington area of southeast Pennsylvania, where public and private water systems have seen high levels of PFAS chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS because of the fire-fighting foams once used in nearby military bases.

The chemicals’ presence in local water systems around Horsham is now well below the EPA’s health-advisory limits because of local government investment in carbon filters, which remove the chemicals from drinking water.

The EPA, under fire from clean-water advocates for lacking an enforceable health standard on the chemicals, also held a national summit on the issue at which former Administrator Scott Pruitt said he would look into whether to regulate the chemicals.

Environmental groups welcomed Pruitt’s statement but said any new regulations on so-called Maximum Contaminant Limits for the chemicals would take years to implement even if they were agreed to by an aggressively pro-market EPA.

The new legislation, if adopted, could offer a faster way of protecting public health from the chemicals, advocates said. It would also begin to establish national standards for a class of chemicals that is mostly regulated by states such as New Jersey and Vermont, both of which have set stricter standards than those advocated, but not required, by the federal government.

“Both of these bills could be helpful in identifying where PFCs are located in the environment and drinking water,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “If the result is the setting of a mandatory standard for drinking water … it would provide needed protection for the public.”

In complying with any national standard, states must be allowed to set their own regulations based on local conditions such as PFAS concentrations, the length of time that the contamination has existed, and the danger of pollution migrating, Carluccio said.

She argued for enforceable limits at the state level, rather than just health advisories on PFAS concentrations in drinking water, as currently issued by the EPA.

Carluccio, a longtime advocate for tighter limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water, welcomed the plan to have the USGS do a systematic assessment of the problem.

“We need a comprehensive investigation by an agency such as USGS to locate [PFAS chemicals] so the extent of the contamination problem is understood, prompting the action that is critically needed to get these pollutants out of people’s drinking water,” she said.

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, called the bills “one piece of the puzzle.” While the USGS proposal represents a straightforward increase in its work on PFAS, the plan for more cooperation between state and federal governments is less clear, he said.

Still, he said the federal government can play an important role in helping states manage PFAS by providing expertise and analytical capability that states often don’t have. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, for example, has been limited by years of budget cuts.

“Having the capacity of the federal government can be very helpful,” he said.

Environmental Working Group, which advocates for tighter PFAS curbs, welcomed the bills and said they could help to fill a vacuum in federal leadership on the issue.

“These bills are important in defining the scope of the contamination problem,” said David Andrews, Senior Scientist at EWG, in a statement. “PFAS contamination is a national problem that is sorely lacking in federal leadership. What Americans really need is stringent drinking water regulation.”

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper (D), a cosponsor of the bills, said reports of PFAS-contaminated water in areas near military bases are “devastating.”

“It’s why I’m calling for better coordination between federal agencies and states to ensure that people have access to clean water,” he said in a statement.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who is not listed as a cosponsor, said he has supported efforts to clean up the chemicals, especially in densely populated areas and around military bases, and said that he led Congressional efforts to require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the issue. Toomey has also called on the EPA to visit affected sites, his office said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D) did not respond to requests for comment on whether he supports the legislation.


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