Congress Misses the Mark on PFAS in the NDAA

December 10, 2019 | 11:57 am
US Air Force
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has turned out to be a missed opportunity for a full-on government effort to do its job of protecting us. While we had high hopes for a strong compromise based on draft language adopted this summer, Congress has allowed political whims to get in the way of concrete action to improve people’s lives.While there was some initial progress made on phasing out some PFAS uses and requiring government testing and monitoring, we should also be sounding a rallying cry to continue working for the government action needed to help communities across the country and to make polluters pay for their harmful mess.

The biggest miss in this bill is a failure to include the requirement that PFAS chemicals are deemed “hazardous substances,” which would have triggered manufacturing companies to pay to clean up sites across the country that are sitting in limbo because cleanup of these chemicals is not prioritized by the government. Another missing provision is one that would have required EPA to set an enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act within two years, triggering testing and monitoring across the country. Finally, the piece that would have helped to cut off the tap of industrial PFAS discharges into drinking water under the Clean Water Act is absent from this NDAA.

The final NDAA still contains some of the important PFAS measures we were hoping to see, including:

  • A phaseout of military use of firefighting foam containing PFAS by 2024 (with the opportunity for up to two years of extensions) and a ban of PFAS foams in military training exercises
  • Required public reporting of environmental releases of a group of PFAS chemicals under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) and a requirement to use formal rulemaking processes and science in decisions on adding other PFAS to the TRI list in the future
  • A data call under the Toxic Substances Control Act to obtain information from manufacturers about which PFAS chemicals were historically made and sold.
  • Finalization of EPA’s 2015 proposed Significant New Use Rule on long-chain PFAS under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which would give EPA notice and time to assess risks before PFAS-containing products come to market
  • Required EPA guidance on how to dispose of and destroy PFAS and materials containing PFAS
  • Continued funding for ATSDR health assessments to better understand impacts of exposure in PFAS-contaminated communities
  • Required US Geological Survey monitoring of surface and groundwater, soils, and wells to better understand the scope of PFAS contamination
  • Required blood testing for military firefighters during annual exams to better document exposure

The loss of several PFAS-relevant provisions wouldn’t sting so much if there was reason to believe that the White House and agencies would take urgent, meaningful action on their own. But so far, the EPA and DOD have failed to act fast enough, and the White House is even delaying nationwide PFAS health assessments that will provide meaningful public health evidence to inform science-based policies. Earlier this month, EPA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) asking for comments on how to add PFAS to the TRI list, which was completely insufficient. The agency also claims that it will issue a determination on whether to set an enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water by the end of this year, but even if they do decide to set a standard, it will likely be for just two PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) and will take years to result in a standard and in cleaner water. As long as the federal government fails to take action, the burden of cleanup is going to continue to fall on local and state governments, which means the inequities that already exist will persist.

We must all fight to ensure that the full suite of PFAS provisions make it into this year’s NDAA so that communities can look forward to cleaner water and brighter futures in 2020. Call your members of Congress and tell them that compromising on our health is unacceptable and urge them to vote “no” on the NDAA when it comes to the floor.