WASHINGTON – Congressional negotiators have removed strong new restrictions on a family of chemicals called PFAS from the National Defense Authorization Act, an environmental advocacy group said Friday.
A bipartisan conference committee of senators and representatives seeking to get the 2020 military spending bill passed had been meeting behind closed doors to find compromises between bills passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate.
While details of the conference committee’s negotiations work have not been made public, Scott Faber, vice president of the Environmental Working Group, said the lawmakers chose not to include a hazardous designation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the law.
Marta Hernandez, communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the conference committee has not finalized its bill. She said it is too early to comment.
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally and can build up in the bodies of those exposed to them. Declaring them hazardous would have pushed the PFAS used to make products heat-, stain- and water-resistant into Superfund status, making it easier for communities to force polluters to pay to clean up water sources.
In February 2018, 3M settled a PFAS water-pollution suit with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office for $850 million. The suit charged that 3M knew of the risks of PFAS but failed to reveal them and subsequently polluted water sources in the east metro area of the Twin Cities. 3M admitted no guilt in the settlement and recently maintained in congressional testimony that PFAS have not harmed anyone at current levels in the environment.
3M said it would be “inappropriate to comment” because the company has not seen a copy of the final conference committee bill.
Besides Minnesota, a number of states and local communities have sued 3M, DuPont, Chemours and other companies to clean up water and soil that they say have been tainted by PFAS.
Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who helped lead an effort to declare PFAS hazardous, called the agreement on the defense bill a missed opportunity.
“Congress had a key opportunity to give these hundreds of American communities the help they so desperately need and deserve,” Carper said. “But because of behind-the-scenes, Beltway politics we are about to miss that opportunity. This outcome betrays the solemn responsibility we have as lawmakers to protect our military families and all residents of this country, and Congress should be ashamed by its failure to lead.”
Faber said proposed restrictions on amounts of PFAS allowed into water sources were also taken out of the bill that will go to the Senate and House for approval and, if approved, on to President Donald Trump for his signature.
The House included a hazardous designation of all PFAS in its version of the defense bill. The Senate did not.
Public health advocates and environmentalists say the hazardous designation is critical in containing and treating a national pollution crisis potentially threatening 100 million people in nearly every state.
The Environmental Protection Agency says water sources tainted by elevated levels of PFAS could cause health issues such as cancer.
The conference committee bill does address PFAS at several levels, according to Faber. It requires the Department of Defense to work with states to coordinate cleanup of PFAS used on firefighting foam that have contaminated water sources near military bases.
The bill also requires manufacturers to report discharges of several hundred types of PFAS. There are roughly 600 kinds sold commercially. Only two, PFOA and PFOS, have been discontinued because of serious health risks. However, both remain a threat in the environment because they break down so slowly.
The EPA issued a lifetime advisory recommending that drinking water should contain less than 70 parts of PFOS and PFOA per trillion. But the agency has yet to set an enforceable standard. So there are no legal limits on any PFOS and PFOA.
In his statement, Carper criticized conferees for their unwillingness to even take on these most notorious substances.
“It is appalling,” Carper said, “that Senate Republicans opposed — and some senior House Democrats did not insist on — a principled, compromise measure to begin cleanup at military sites and in communities throughout the country for just two of the most harmful legacy PFAS chemicals.”