Senators decry Trump White House’s ‘lack of urgency’ on PFAS contamination

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has failed to act swiftly enough to protect the public from harmful contaminants present in drinking water throughout the country, U.S. senators told senior administration officials Thursday.

Democrats and Republicans alike expressed frustration over the federal government’s response to the widespread drinking water contamination by chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the issue.

The man-made chemicals — used in everything from fire-fighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are found on military bases, including one in Montgomery County, Pa., and in other U.S. communities.

They have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems, and environmental and public health advocates want faster cleanup and strict guidelines for the allowable limits of the chemicals in drinking water.

“Far too many communities worry about the quality of their drinking water in this country,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said at the hearing, where officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense testified about the federal response to the health risks associated with the chemicals.

The two federal agencies, Duckworth said, have “failed to understand the scope of the PFAS problem, and they’ve failed to determine how to dispose of the chemical — which persists in the environment and our bodies — and regulate the chemical.”

The Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but critics say it isn’t aggressive enough, and the administration won’t commit to a timeline for regulation.

David Ross, the EPA’s top water official, said the agency is committed to “proposing a regulatory determination this year” and would “move through that process as expeditiously as possible.”

But he declined to give a timeline for regulating PFAS in drinking water. “It’s a long process, to be frank,” Ross said, adding that the agency was committed to using the best science possible.

Public exposure to PFAS chemicals is “extremely widespread,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, told lawmakers. She testified that in the United States, studies have shown “virtually all individuals” — 97 percent — have “detectable” PFAS concentrations in their blood.

Exposure to the chemicals is a major concern in suburban Philadelphia. U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, whose Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District has been impacted by the contamination, has emerged as a forceful voice to urge EPA to hasten its regulatory efforts.

During a House hearing earlier this month, Fitzpatrick warned that PFAS contamination is “one of the most widespread public health crises we, as a nation, currently face.”

Fitzpatrick pointed to constituents in West Rockhill Township, whose water supplies were contaminated by PFAS chemicals decades after firefighters had used them to fight a massive tire fire there in 1986. More than 30 years later, PFAS levels in the water supply for many households in West Rockhill Township test at some of the highest levels in the country, Fitzpatrick said.

The Republican lawmaker has called on the EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund Act and to establish allowable limits for the chemicals in drinking water.

“With these two regulatory actions, our constituents will be given the protection they need after so many years of inaction,” he said during that hearing.

In February, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said both the Trump and Obama administrations were “all talk and no execution since I convened all of the federal agencies and local municipalities in September 2016 advocating for help for Warminster, Warrington, and Horsham, [Montgomery County].

“I intend to hold the EPA accountable for the promises they made today in righting this wrong for communities in Pennsylvania and across the nation,” Casey said in a statement released by his office.

Senators from Pennsylvania’s neighboring states expressed similar concerns Thursday.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., criticized what he perceives as a “lack of urgency” from the EPA when it comes to addressing the issue. He noted that the Trump administration acted quickly to roll back Obama administration environmental regulations on clean water and climate change.

But when it comes to “access to clean drinking water, we’re told that EPA can’t even begin to guess when even a single step to protect Americans is finalized.” If the administration won’t act, Carper said, “I think that Congress needs to.”

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she was working with Carper and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to draft legislation to address the contamination.

“I am concerned that we’re falling slightly short here,” Capito said of the federal response. “If this was the water that your children and grandchildren were drinking, what would be the emerging level of concern, rather than having it occur somewhere else?”

Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen pointed to military sites in their state where PFAS contamination has been detected.

Cardin called for the government to strive to “prevent further contamination where we can,” but also to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for paying for cleanup.

Van Hollen also noted concerns about a NASA facility near Chincoteague, Va., a popular tourist destination where PFAS contaminants were detected.

“We’ve had concerns raised by federal employees who work there,” Van Hollen said.

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