House committee advances sweeping legislation to battle 'forever chemicals'

House committee advances sweeping legislation to battle 'forever chemicals'
© Greg Nash

The House Energy and Commerce Committee forwarded on Wednesday major legislation that would target a cancer-linked chemical that is leaching into the water supply.

The legislative package targets a substance abbreviated as PFAS, widely used in a number of nonstick products like cookware and raincoats. 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.

The sweeping legislation combines 11 different bills that would bolster monitoring of PFAS while forcing stronger EPA regulation of the substance.

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The bill directs the Environmental Protection Agency to set a drinking water standard for PFAS. Currently the agency is weighing whether to do so — a decision the agency said earlier this month they are still committed to making by the end of the year.

The EPA has only issued a voluntary recommendation that water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS. 

But advocates not only want legally binding standards — they say the 70 ppt figure is not nearly stringent enough to protect human health.

“Our communities and our families depend on having access to clean water,” Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoDemocrats unveil first bill toward goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 House committee advances sweeping legislation to battle 'forever chemicals' Overnight Energy: Trump officials suspend oil, gas production on Utah plots after lawsuit | California bucks Trump on lightbulb rollback | Scientists join Dems in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule MORE (D-N.Y.), one of the members involved in crafting the legislation, said in a statement. 

“Unfortunately for many towns, cities, villages and military bases throughout our country, this basic requirement is not being fulfilled due to the contamination of PFAS chemicals in drinking water systems. These pollutants pose a dangerous and potentially deadly threat, and swift and effective action addressing this crisis is essential for our communities," he added.

But the bill also goes further, requiring PFAS to be covered under the Superfund law, which designates the cleanup of hazardous sites, and imposes a five-year moratorium on the development of new PFAS chemicals. 

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It also calls for greater data collection on PFAS, including requiring the EPA to test the health effects of other forms of PFAS, forcing manufacturers to turn over their data, and making municipalities disclose when PFAS has been found in drinking water.

The bill also spells out new regulations for PFAS production and cleanup, requiring the EPA to regulate PFAS air pollution under the Clean Air Act, as well as another portion outlining how PFAS can be disposed of.

The bill also requires cleanups at federal sites that meet Superfund requirements, mainly military bases where PFAS has entered the water supply though military use of firefighting foam containing the substance.

The PFAS package comes as lawmakers have discussed removing provisions from the defense policy act that would similarly regulate the substance, leaving unclear how significant the legislation will be on PFAS.

Republicans have long voiced concerned that Democrats’ approach to PFAS may be too broad in addressing a substance with more than 5,000 varieties, some of which are used in medical supplies. 

They also say lawmakers need to be careful about restricting the use of firefighting foam as there is no PFAS-free alternative available. Republicans say they fear airports and military instillations that have used the products in good faith may face liabilities beyond what they can afford. 

The bill will next go to the full House floor for a vote.