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Congress must act swiftly to tackle the American clean water crisis

Water coming out of a kitchen faucet into a glass cup

For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other contaminants are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities of color. When some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.

That’s why the bipartisan infrastructure bill and separate budget reconciliation bill before Congress are both so important. The bipartisan infrastructure bill would make the largest investment in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in U.S. history. In particular, it would provide billions to replace lead service lines and address PFAS. The budget reconciliation bill goes even further, including billions to clean Superfund sites and reward farmers who take steps to reduce agricultural pollution.

The investments in both bills would address longstanding water infrastructure needs. More funding is badly needed. But so is better policy, especially when it comes to PFAS.

Thousands of communities have already detected these toxic forever chemicals in their water and thousands more will get similar results as more testing is completed. The Environmental Working Group estimates that 200 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

Like lead, PFAS chemicals are a public health emergency. PFAS have been linked to cancer and harm to the reproductive and immune systems. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they build up in our bodies. Unlike lead, PFAS are not being treated like an emergency. The PFAS Action Plan released by the Trump administration in 2019 to address the contamination crisis was all plan and no action.

President Biden pledged to finally tackle PFAS, and he’s starting to deliver on those promises. In his Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Opportunity, Biden pledged to address water quality comprehensively.

He also pledged to tackle PFAS pollution by having the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate the chemicals as hazardous and set enforceable limits for PFAS in water, along with committing to prioritize PFAS substitutes during government procurement.

For decades, communities plagued with PFAS waited for the EPA to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution. The EPA has known of the risks posed by PFAS since at least 1998 but failed to act. That’s why the PFAS Road Map being developed by the Biden EPA is so important.

Here’s what we hope the plan will do.

First, we hope the plan will, as the president pledged, quickly set PFAS standards for our drinking water. Some states have issued their own standards, but most have not. The plan should also include quickly finalizing a groundwater cleanup standard for PFAS.

Second, we hope the plan will take a comprehensive approach to water quality, as the president said, by quickly restricting industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water. We estimate that 30,000 companies could be dumping their PFAS wastes this way, making a big problem even bigger.

Third, we hope the plan will, as the president pledged, quickly designate PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. By doing so, the president can kick-start the cleanup process — especially at contaminated Department of Defense sites — and ensure that polluters help pay their fair share of the cleanup costs. Nearly 400 Defense Department installations are contaminated with PFAS throughout the U.S.

Fourth, we hope the plan will, as the president pledged, take steps to end unnecessary uses of PFAS, especially in firefighting foam and household products.

Fifth, we hope the plan will ensure PFAS wastes are properly disposed of. Incinerating PFAS wastes or dumping them into local landfills simply transfers the contamination problems to other communities — including those that are already disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals.

A lot of progress is already being made on PFAS. The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes $10 billion to address PFAS pollution. The PFAS Action Act, which would set deadlines for the EPA to act on tackling PFAS, passed the House with support from both parties earlier this year. And both the Senate and House versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2022 include historic PFAS reforms.

The Biden EPA has already taken several important steps: issuing a regulatory determination on two of the most prevalent PFAS, known as PFOA and PFOS; proposing to expand monitoring of PFAS in drinking water; developing new analytical methods; restoring scientific integrity to the EPA’s review of PFAS; taking steps to close PFAS loopholes; and demanding more data from polluters.

This is a critical moment that will set the stage for the next three years and beyond when it comes to clean water and tackling PFAS. In addition to the administration’s efforts, Congress can swiftly play a critical role in helping to solve the American clean water crisis. Without the funding that the bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation bill would provide, cleaner water will remain out of reach for too many Americans.

Scott Faber is senior vice president of government affairs of Environmental Working Group.

Tags Building America clean water Infrastructure Joe Biden PFAS

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