Pa. lawmakers seize on Pentagon spending bill to tackle PFAS in drinking water

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania lawmakers on Capitol Hill are eyeing must-pass defense legislation as a vehicle to crack down on dangerous chemicals that contaminate drinking water across the state.

Lawmakers in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House want to force the government to do more to study, regulate, and clean up the ubiquitous and harmful chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

They see the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a massive defense spending bill that’s expected to be one of the rare pieces of legislation to pass through both chambers of Congress this year — as a prime opportunity to address the issue.

The Senate’s version of the defense bill, which could pass as early as this week, is expected to include provisions backed by Pennsylvania U.S. Sens. Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey that would address PFAS contamination.

“All Pennsylvanians — particularly the residents of Bucks and Montgomery counties — should be fully aware of any risks associated with PFAS in drinking water,” Toomey said in a statement.

What are PFAS chemicals and what is Pennsylvania doing about them?

PFAS contamination has raised health concerns in those counties, but tests have shown that the contamination is widespread throughout the state and elsewhere in the country.

The man-made PFAS chemicals — used in everything from firefighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are prevalent on military bases and in other communities. They have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

The Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but lawmakers and others argue the administration isn’t moving fast enough to regulate the chemicals and clean up contaminated areas.

Toomey called the action plan “a step in the right direction,” but said the language in the defense bill will “do more to inform impacted communities through increased accountability and transparency.”

Groundwater contamination by PFAS has been found in at least 33 states and affects an estimated 10 million Americans, the New York Times reported earlier this year.

As the public has grown alarmed about the health impacts of PFAS, there’s become broad bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress to tackle the issue legislatively.

“I support efforts to get to the root sources of PFAS contamination and chart a path forward to getting PFAS below toxic levels in our environment and ensuring Pennsylvanians have clean water,” Casey said in a statement.

What are PFAS chemicals and what is Pennsylvania doing about them?

The Senate’s version of the defense bill is expected to include language that would — among other things — require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency within two years to set a national drinking water standard for two types of PFAS that the agency has labeled “contaminants of emerging concern.”

That could speed up EPA’s timeline significantly, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

Even if EPA were to make a regulatory determination to establish a drinking water standard this year, “it could easily take a decade before a standard was finalized and utilities were beginning to comply with that standard,” Faber said.

The version of the bill that passes the Senate is also expected to include language to require the addition of PFAS to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which would require industries to report their releases of the chemicals into the environment. The legislation also would bar the military from buying firefighting foam made from PFAS chemicals.

In the U.S. House, meanwhile, more than a dozen amendments dealing with PFAS have been filed ahead of that chamber’s vote on its version of the defense spending bill, which is expected after the July 4th recess.

One amendment offered by lawmakers from Pennsylvania and other states would authorize an additional $5 million for a nationwide PFAS health study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That effort is backed by Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District; Brendan Boyle, D-2nd District; Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District; and others.

Another amendment from Reps. Conor Lamb, D-17th District; Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District; Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District; Mike Doyle, D-18th District; along with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., would require the Pentagon — when buying carbon filtration systems to remove PFAS — to give preference to products produced in the United States and to products that can be recycled.

Yet another amendment to the defense spending bill from Fitzpatrick and two Michigan Democrats would bar the Defense Department’s logistics agency from using PFAS-containing substances to assemble or package meals ready-to-eat (MREs).

There are other PFAS amendments, too, although it’s still unclear which of the raft of total amendments offered will see votes on the House floor or make it into the legislation that’s expected to pass the chamber. The underlying bill that will head to the floor already contains some PFAS-related provisions.

Given all the interest surrounding the issue, lawmakers and environmental advocates say they’re optimistic that legislation to address the chemicals will soon take effect.

“If Congress did nothing more than help us understand where PFAS pollution is coming from and how far it has spread, that would reflect progress compared to what Congress has done in past years,” said Faber of EWG.

And he’s hopeful that lawmakers will go much further than that.

“The truth is, it’s probably the case that more than 100 million Americans are drinking PFAS-contaminated water and don’t know it.”

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