Here’s how Pa. lawmakers are waging a multifront war against PFAS contamination

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WASHINGTON — In a rare show of bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, joined Democrats this week to push for a government crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems.

“We must act quickly to prevent the spread of these dangerous chemicals and … hold those responsible for this pollution accountable,” Fitzpatrick said at a Capitol Hill press conference with Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan on Tuesday. It’s “incredibly important.”

Fitzpatrick and Kildee co-chair a bipartisan congressional task force that aims to regulate the substances. Democratic U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle, of the Philadelphia-based 2nd District, and Madeleine Dean, of Montgomery County’s 4th District, are also members of the task force.

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Kildee praised Fitzpatrick for his willingness to work across the aisle in a time of polarization. “There’s an impression here in Washington that it’s a highly partisan environment and we can’t get anything done,” he said. “Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not” — and Fitzpatrick, he said, is an exception.

Used in tape, nonstick pans, microwave popcorn bags and other everyday products, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other health problems. 

They have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country, including in 11 drinking water systems in Pennsylvania, five military sites, and two other sites in the state, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

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Fitzpatrick, Boyle, Dean and other lawmakers from both parties and numerous states are pushing for PFAS legislation in Congress, pressing for action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and raising public awareness about the issue.

Their best hope for immediate legislative action is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual “must pass” bill that includes numerous PFAS provisions. “That is going to be where the battle is,” Fitzpatrick told the Capital-Star. 

The House and Senate each passed its own version of the NDAA last summer, and some PFAS-related provisions in the bills differ. Members of a House-Senate conference committee are now negotiating differences between the bills.

“We’re going to take to the floor and fight hard for this because this is really important,” Fitzpatrick said.

One item he and other House lawmakers consider non-negotiable: a provision in the House version that would require the EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). If passed, the provision would trigger cleanup of sites contaminated by PFAS.

Fitzpatrick, Boyle, Dean, and U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, and other lawmakers signed a letter last month threatening to withhold support for the NDAA if it doesn’t include the CERCLA provision. 

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, in part over objections to certain PFAS provisions. 

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, shrugged off President Donald Trump’s threat. “The president is not going to hold up a $730 billion bill over PFAS,” he said.

Another possibility for action in the near term is federal funding to address PFAS. That “could be helpful” but it is being held up by the Senate, said Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Also pending in the House is legislation sponsored by Boyle that would require the EPA to set an enforceable, nationwide primary drinking water standard for PFAS contaminants. 

“It is past time we address these contaminants with the seriousness they merit,” Boyle said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “Public health is at stake while the EPA continues to dither and delay setting enforceable limits on these chemicals. This is unacceptable.

Fitzpatrick also pointed to the PFAS Right-to-Know Act, which would include PFAS in EPA’s toxic release inventory. Dean and Wild have also signed on to the bill.

This week also featured the House’s fourth PFAS hearing in the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on the Environment, which Democrats used to call on the EPA to take immediate action to regulate PFAS. 

The EPA unveiled a PFAS “action plan” in February and is expected to roll out a set of recommendations before the end of the year that will provide a “starting point” for making site-specific cleanup decisions.

But critics say the action plan doesn’t go far enough to contain and clean up PFAS and are skeptical the new recommendations will put public health over corporate profits.

“No administration in history has done more to weaken air and water pollution standards, so I am expecting a lump of coal from [EPA chief] Andy Wheeler, literally and figuratively,” Faber said. “That does not bode well for communities that are struggling with PFAS pollution.”

In previous House hearings this year, Democratic lawmakers accused leading chemical companies such as DuPont TK and 3M of withholding information from the public about the chemicals’ harmful effects on public health. 

Corporate representatives have denied the claims and said there is no known link to negative health effects.

Also this week, a public interest media company launched a campaign to raise awareness about the so-called “forever” chemicals. The cornerstone of the campaign is a new film that chronicles the life of Robert Bilott, a former environmental attorney who brought the harmful effects of a PFAS chemical to light in a case against DuPont and who has testified about the issue this year.

The film, Dark Waters, is “a story about bringing justice to communities that have been living with PFAS for decades,” said Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays Bilott in the film. 

“What we’re doing here today is we’re basically gathering lawmakers and building momentum to have some legislation on this issue to protect us,” said Ruffalo, who spoke at the Tuesday press conference.