House passes bill requiring EPA to regulate ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water
The House on Wednesday approved a bill that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish national drinking water standards for “forever chemicals” — a group of toxic compounds linked to kidney and liver issues, among other health problems.
The PFAS Action Act of 2021 passed the lower chamber with bipartisan support, 241-183. Twenty-three Republican lawmakers voted with Democrats to pass the measure.
One Democrat and five Republicans were “no” votes.
The legislation, introduced by Michigan Reps. Debbie Dingell (D) and Fred Upton (R), would demand that the EPA regulate the most common perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFOA and PFOS — within two years of enactment, as well as designate these two compounds as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law within a year. To date, the EPA has only established “health advisory levels” for PFAS compounds.
“Nearly every American has PFAS coursing through their blood,” Dingell said, during a debate on the House floor prior to the Wednesday vote.
Her co-sponsor, Upton, recalled a 2014 lead contamination tragedy in Flint, Mich., stressing that his state knows “a little bit about water contamination.”
“PFAS is bad too — really bad,” Upton said. “And EPA has been slow at the switch.”
The bill would give the EPA five years both to determine whether all PFAS — of which there are thousands — should be designated as hazardous and to submit a review of the agency’s PFAS cleanup efforts. The EPA would also have 180 days to add PFOA and PFOS to the Clean Air Act’s hazardous pollutants list and would need to develop effluent limits for PFAS under the Clean Water Act.
The EPA administrator would need to mandate “comprehensive toxicity testing” on all PFAS by sorting compounds into tiered categories and adjusting testing accordingly. A final rule on testing would occur within two years.
The bill would limit industrial discharges of PFAS and allocate $200 million annually from 2022 to 2026 for wastewater treatment, as well as restrict incineration of PFAS wastes. The agency would make PFAS-free labels available for relevant products, while establishing a household well water testing website that clearly communicates public health risks.
“This approach puts the focus on following the science, by tailoring testing to relevant subgroups of PFAS and focusing regulation on the riskiest chemicals,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), during Wednesday’s debate.
At a bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force meeting on Wednesday morning, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) relayed a U.S. West sentiment that “the water that we do have we treasure, we protect and we make sure it’s clean.”
“What we value more than water is the health of our children,” Crow said.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), meanwhile, slammed the EPA for “not doing its due diligence,” at the same press conference.
A previous version of the PFAS Action Act passed the House in January 2020 but stalled in the Senate after facing a veto threat by former President Trump. While a Senate companion bill has yet to be introduced this time, President Biden has indicated his support for the House bill.
During Wednesday’s debate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of “senselessly [refusing] to take it up in the Senate” when he served as majority leader.
But many Republicans still oppose the PFAS Action Act, arguing that it could lead to a broad ban on PFAS. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) condemned the bill as “overwhelming, heavy handed and unscientific,” as well as an “aggressive expansion of federal power.”
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) called the bill “sincerely well-intended” but said that the Congressional Budget Office was unable to assign a budgetary score to such expansive legislation, which would be a “hamstring to our small businesses.”
Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), a heart surgeon, criticized the authors for failing to include an amendment that would exempt PFAS use in medical devices — suggesting that the text as-is could jeopardize access to life-saving drugs.
In response, Dingell argued that “there is nothing in this bill that would ban PFAS used in drugs, medical devices or PPE.”
Both Dingell and Pelosi emphasized the adverse health effects related to PFAS exposure, with the latter stressing that the compounds are “exposing millions of Americans to health risks.”
“We are making clear that this legislation is a priority for the American people, and we will not relent until it is enacted,” Pelosi said.