House passes sweeping bill to target spread of toxic 'forever chemicals'

House passes sweeping bill to target spread of toxic 'forever chemicals'

The House on Friday passed legislation to broadly regulate a cancer-linked chemical over objections from the White House that Congress is sidestepping agencies.

The bill, which passed 247 to 159, targets a class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS that have been leaching into the water supply across the country, causing health problems in communities where water has been contaminated.

Democrats have argued the bill is necessary due to a lack of action from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

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“The Environmental Protection Agency has known about these risks for decades and has allowed this contamination to spread. Last year, EPA announced its PFAS Action Plan. It was woefully inadequate, and since that time, we’ve learned that EPA is not even keeping the weak commitments it made in that plan,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said on the floor during debate late Thursday, referencing the EPA missing a self-imposed deadline for announcing how it would regulate the substance.

“It is time for Congress to take action and use every tool available to stop the flow of PFAS pollution into our environment and our bodies.” 

PFAS are used in a variety of nonstick products such as raincoats, cookware and firefighting foam. They are considered “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and in the human body, with 99 percent of those tested found to have PFAS traces in their body.

The legislation is Democrats’ latest attempt to regulate PFAS after similar, but less far-reaching measures were stripped from the must-pass defense policy bill. 

Under the bill the EPA would be required to set a mandatory drinking water standard for PFAS.

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The EPA currently recommends water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of PFAS, but Democrats and public health groups say the agency needs an actual requirement — one that will likely need to be below that level to protect public health.

Republicans lamented that negotiations to require that drinking water standard fell apart in December.

But now that the legislation incorporates measures from 11 previous PFAS bills, Republicans, including those in the White House, say the bill is too broad, making little distinction between the more than 6,000 forms of PFAS while opening up too many parties to liability.

“Innocent parties like drinking water utilities that just treated what they got from their source water are hostage to endless liability for cleanup, regardless of their personal contribution. In fact, I would argue, they didn't do any contribution. Why not exclude the water district from Superfund liability if they are just the pass through?” asked Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing MORE (R-Ill.). 

Republicans have also argued Congress is jumping ahead of regulatory processes that should be handled by the EPA.

In a policy statement released earlier this week, the White House threatened to veto the bill, further diminishing the prospects of legislation already facing resistance in the GOP-led Senate.

“The regulatory process works best when EPA and other agencies are free to devise regulations based on the best available science and careful consideration of all the relevant facts. By truncating the rulemaking process, this legislation risks undermining public confidence in the EPA’s decisions, and also risks the imposition of unnecessary costs on States, public water systems, and others responsible for complying with its prescriptive mandates,” the White House wrote in its statement of administrative policy.

In debate late Thursday, Senate Republicans called the House bill dead on arrival. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Lobbying world MORE (R-Wyo.) said the bill has “no prospects.”

Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoBottom Line Trump administration expected to roll back Obama-era mileage standards As we face coronavirus battle, we must ensure critical supplies of respirators for health care workers MORE (D-N.Y.) one of the sponsors of the bill, said nibbling at the edges of the PFAS problem through the defense bill “is not enough to declare victory,” encouraging the Senate to approach the problem similarly. 

The bill includes a number of other measures that would further regulate PFAS, including requiring PFAS to be covered under the hazardous waste cleanup law, and imposes a five-year moratorium on the development of new PFAS chemicals. 

The bill also spells out new regulations for production and cleanup of such toxic chemicals, requiring the EPA to regulate PFAS air pollution under the Clean Air Act, as well as another portion outlining proper disposal for PFAS chemicals.

Rachel Frazin contributed reporting.