WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and environmental advocates suffered a stinging setback with the release of a defense policy bill this week that lacks key provisions to crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to serious health problems.
The must-pass legislation represented the lawmakers’ best hope this year for enacting a comprehensive set of strong provisions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other problems.
The compromise version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act that emerged Monday leaves out a House-passed amendment that would have required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law.
The provision would have triggered cleanup of contaminated sites around the country, including several Pennsylvania, such as the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in suburban Philadelphia.
Used in tape, nonstick pans and other everyday items, PFAS have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingel, D-Mich, who championed the measure, called its exclusion from the bill “inexcusable” and “unforgivable” in an interview. “I’m going to do everything I can until we get PFAS listed as a toxic chemical at the federal level,” she said.
She was joined in bipartisan ire by U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, who’s also emerged as a forceful voice on the issue, and who co-chairs a bipartisan task force on the issue.
“It is unacceptable that NDAA conferees were unable to reach a consensus on several critically important provisions involving PFAS contamination,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement released by his office.
“As co-Chair of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, myself and Congressman Dan Kildee will continue fighting for our constituents’ right to safe drinking water and a robust, enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL). The committees of jurisdiction and 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 NDAA conference report does not,” Fitzpatrick said.
Also on the cutting-room floor: language that would have required the EPA to limit PFAS levels in waterways and strengthen regulations on PFAS in drinking water.
The bill does retain some PFAS-related provisions.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, who has also worked on the issue, acknowledged that the defense funding bill “makes significant progress on our PFAS water contamination challenge, including a series of measures to protect service-members and veterans and a provision to phase out aqueous film-forming firefighting foam (AFFF) that I fought for.
“While I am disappointed that some important measures were left out of the NDAA, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has indicated that he will bring a standalone PFAS Action Act to the House floor for a vote in January. I look forward to continuing our work – and protecting America’s drinking water.”
The National Defense Authorization Act would authorize funding for the U.S. Department of Defense and other national security programs through fiscal year 2020. The $738 billion compromise bill could come up for a vote as early as this week.
Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, the other co-chair of the congressional PFAS task force, signed a letter in October threatening to withhold support for the bill if it didn’t “significantly address” PFAS. Dozens of other lawmakers also signed on.
“I am very disappointed that Senate Republicans are blocking meaningful bipartisan legislation to regulate and clean-up PFAS chemicals,” Kildee said. “If Congress fails to act now on PFAS, service members and the American people may have to wait years for this administration to act.”
The White House threatened to veto the bill in July over certain PFAS provisions but issued a statement of support for the compromise version on Tuesday. The statement flagged the bill’s pay raise for troops, paid parental leave for federal employees and the creation of a U.S. space force.
Hoyer blamed Senate Republicans for excluding key PFAS provisions from the bill so it could make its way through Congress. Others said House Democrats walked away from negotiations because they felt PFAS provisions were too weak.
Slotkin says the provisions that remain in the base bill still represent progress.
“The most we’ve ever had in any Pentagon budget is a commitment to study PFAS,” she said. “This is the first time we have something that’s actually beyond just studying the problem.”
The former Pentagon official pointed to language that would require the military to transition off of PFAS-laden fire-fighting foam by 2024, ban the foam in exercises and training, test PFAS levels in military firefighters’ blood and other provisions.