Energy & Environment

Senate eyes nixing ‘forever chemicals’ from major defense policy bill

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The Pentagon is shown in this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo.

The Senate is prepared to walk away from provisions of a defense policy bill that would compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate a cancer-linked chemical that is leaching into the water supply, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters Tuesday.

Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) include provisions dealing with a class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS. The substance is used in firefighting foam and has contaminated the water near at least 425 military sites

But the chemical, which is widely used in a number of nonstick products, is hardly just a military problem. One study found that 99 percent of those tested had PFAS traces in their blood, and it’s been deemed a “forever chemical” due to its persistence in both the body and the environment. It’s been found in nearly every state in the country.

Both the House and Senate versions push the EPA to set a drinking water standard for PFAS — the agency currently only has a 70 parts per trillion level they recommend municipalities meet. But the House version goes even further, requiring PFAS to be designated a hazardous substance under the Superfund law, enabling funds to clean up contamination.

But as the conference committee on the legislation drags on, it appears less likely that PFAS provisions outside the scope of the military may be included at all. 

Inhofe said the broad provisions are veering outside the scope of what would typically be included in a defense policy bill — legislation that is already entangled in a fight over whether to give funding to President Trump’s border wall.

“Look we made a deal months ago that when we’re in somebody else’s jurisdiction, and they change their mind or are opposed to it, then … we’re just going to let them go ahead and try to do it through their committees,” he said. 

That would likely be a big disappointment to many on the House side. 

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) sent a letter, alongside 68 other House members, that said they would not support the bill if it “fails to significantly address ongoing and legacy contamination from PFAS chemicals.”

“The important thing for us is to make it really clear that it’s very difficult for some of us to support the NDAA anyway. It’s a tough call. But when we have these really good provisions on PFAS that’s an incentive for us to move forward and overlook what we see as some of the other weaknesses. If somehow that’s stripped out, I mean there’s no real motivation for many of us to stick with this legislation itself,” Kildee said last week.

Even if broad PFAS provisions aren’t included in the NDAA, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is already working on a larger bill to regulate the substance. 

“If they’re going to choose to not include that in their defense bill then obviously here’s our chance to have the issue really stand on its own, which was my preference,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who is spearheading the effort, said last week. 

“It’s of such significance and so important to public health and public safety, and it’s a modern day concern veiled in urgency,” he said. “I think the best way is to have it discussed and responded to in its own right.”

If the NDAA proceeded without any PFAS provision, that would likely please the EPA, which is in the process of reviewing whether to set a drinking water standard for PFAS and believes the regulation should come from the agency itself. 

“We don’t support either the House or the Senate bill,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said at a PFAS event last month. 

Tags Andrew Wheeler Dan Kildee Donald Trump James Inhofe NDAA Paul Tonko PFAS
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