Lawmakers at odds over how to tackle spread of harmful chemicals in water

Lawmakers at odds over how to tackle spread of harmful chemicals in water
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House lawmakers on Wednesday reviewed over a dozen pieces of legislation regarding the spread of harmful nonstick chemicals in drinking water, exposing the lack of agreement on how to deal with the problem. 

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on energy and climate change discussed 13 different approaches to address the growing issue of the chemicals, technically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The chemicals are used on everything from Teflon pans, food packaging and stain-resistant fabrics, and as they break down they enter the water supply.

The scope of the problem is becoming clearer as a growing number of states — currently 43 — have some sort of PFAS contamination. But it's less clear how the government should address the problem.

Lawmakers on Wednesday said they were conflicted about how to regulate a class of chemicals that includes almost 5,000 different varieties. 

“These chemicals are everywhere—in our environment and in our bodies, with new communities affected all the time,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “All the PFAS in our drinking supply came from industrial activity. They will keep showing up in our drinking water sources if we continue to produce and use thousands of different PFAS chemicals.”

There is bipartisan support for addressing PFAS in some way, and the meeting attracted members from both sides of aisle who aren’t on the subcommittee but dropped in to ask questions.

But sticking points quickly arose over whether Congress should take action before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whether legislation should address the most common forms of PFAS or broadly tackle its thousands of variants, and whether legislation should so heavily focus on water when pollution stems from the creation of a number of everyday products.

“EPA has given us little reason for confidence that they will act with the urgency that impacted communities know is needed,” said subcommittee chairman Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Overnight Energy: EPA expands use of pesticide it considers 'highly toxic' to bees | House passes defense bill with measure targeting 'forever chemicals' | Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-N.Y), lamenting that it would be years before the agency would be able to set a drinking water standard. “One thing is clear: we cannot wait for EPA to act.”

The EPA has been under pressure to set a drinking water standard for PFAS after several states have done so in the absence of agency action. The agency says it will determine by the end of the year whether it will undertake setting such a level. 

Several committee Republicans shared Tonko's view asked why EPA was not present at the hearing. Tonko said they were invited but declined due to scheduling conflicts.

Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesman, said the agency was unable to prepare for the hearing in time but plans to return for a June hearing on PFAS.

Among the legislation reviewed by the committee are bills that would require EPA to set a drinking water standard for PFAS, allow Superfund cleanup funds to be used to deal with PFAS contamination, a ban on new PFAS chemicals, and another to provide funding to clean up water that is already contaminated.

Some Republicans expressed concern over acting before EPA, particularly if Congressional action included wiping out uses of thousands of types of PFAS before the agency could review the health impacts of many of the lesser-studied forms as well as alternatives on the market.

Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenOvernight Energy: EPA expands use of pesticide it considers 'highly toxic' to bees | House passes defense bill with measure targeting 'forever chemicals' | Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (R-Ore.) said the bills, mainly introduced by Democrats, present an “enormous, sweeping response” to all forms of PFAS and would stifle EPA action and likely spur some lawsuits.

“States would face significant unfunded mandates, while foisting obligations on private parties who are currently unaware of potential liability – like farmers using biosolids from wastewater treatment facility to improve soil health,” Walden said. “All of this is likely to result in litigation to prevent or prolong the situation, rather than move to promptly address contamination.” 

Some panelists shared that view.

“I think there would be litigation—there’s no question, and to just sort of impose blanket bans is highly risky,” said Jane C. Luxton, a lawyer at Lewis Brisbois and former general counsel to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the George W. Bush administration.

Luxton said dealing with all classes of PFAS at once could dilute the effort to deal with some of the most-studied and riskiest forms. 

But others argued that if Congress acts too narrowly now, they run the risk of leaving thousands of dangerous chemicals on the market.

“If we don’t regulate them as a class, we’re going to be on this treadmill of trying to regulate one at a time and we’ll never get off of it,” said Erik D. Olson, the health program director and the Natural Resources Defense Council.