PFAS Amendments Form a Blueprint for Remedying National Toxic Threat

July 11, 2019 | 1:42 pm
US Embassy and Consulate in the Netherlands
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The House of Representatives will vote today on the inclusion of several PFAS-related amendments to the House National Defense Authorization Act that will help us to understand the extent of the PFAS public health threat and its health impacts, limit current PFAS pollution, and clean up legacy contamination on DOD and Superfund sites and nearby communities. These are all commonsense measures that should have already been in place to protect us from these chemicals, but because of a failure of our regulatory system and industry hiding scientific data on its products, we have waited too long for policy remedies. The inclusion of PFAS amendments on the Senate and House versions of the NDAA are a great first step toward much-needed reform to remedy the PFAS contamination situation we find ourselves in today, and we hope to see the two chambers work together to form the strongest package possible in conference that then becomes law.

What would the bill do?

The NDAA is comprehensive legislation that funds the Defense Department, so the PFAS section is just a sliver of the law. The House and Senate versions of the NDAA have a lot in common but have different amendments tacked on that bulk them up. They both attack the PFAS problem from three key fronts:

Understanding the scope of PFAS contamination and exposure

The House and Senate versions both contain provisions that would improve government tracking of PFAS contamination and require blood testing for DOD firefighters. The Senate version of the NDAA includes legislation that would require that USGS and water utilities monitor PFAS contaminants in water. We recommend that the House version include amendments that would provide an additional $5 million for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) health exposure assessment (#518), expand water quality monitoring (#7), and create an online health database for military members (#165).

Regulating PFAS manufacturing, use, and disposal

The Senate version of the bill includes a phaseout of PFAS in firefighting foam by 2023 (which is a quicker phaseout than the House’s deadline of 2029), requires the EPA to set an enforceable standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years and that it list PFAS on the Toxic Release Inventory, which would require manufacturers to report discharges of the chemicals into the environment and notify communities. We recommend that the House version also include faster phase out of PFAS in firefighting foam (#512), a requirement for community notification of DOD PFAS testing (#94), set limits on PFAS discharges into drinking water supplies under the Clean Water Act (#665), and regulate the disposal and incineration of PFAS materials (#352).

Cleaning up PFAS contamination

The Senate version would require the Secretary of Defense to set up cooperative agreements with states facing contamination from military sites to remediate sites expeditiously. We recommend that the House version go a step farther by requiring that EPA designate PFAS as a hazardous substance, which would require responsible parties to clean it up (#537), hasten cleanup of military sites contaminated with PFAS (#538), and also charge GAO with studying DOD cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites (#159).

What’s next for the bill?

The House will vote today on the inclusion of these amendments into its NDAA package. Once the House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the NDAA, they will have to conference the two bills to create a resolution that can pass both chambers in the fall and make its way onto President Trump’s desk. We are encouraging members of Congress to ensure that this version is as strong as possible and includes the best elements of both versions, including language classifying PFAS as a hazardous substance, listing it under the Toxic Release Inventory, and setting an enforceable standard for drinking water.

The fight continues

We are encouraged that there is bicameral legislation on the table which includes provisions that will help chip away at the PFAS public health issue and signal to the government that urgent action is needed. Communities impacted by PFAS contamination firsthand are tired of lip service—they just want clean water. EPA and DOD should be working tirelessly to understand how to detect PFAS, how to best clean it up and dispose of it, and how to mitigate related health impacts. EPA should also think about regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals rather than on a case by case basis, because as Linda Birnbaum (departing head of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences) affirmed in her testimony before the Senate this year, “approaching PFAS as a class for assessing exposure and biological impact is the most prudent approach to protect public health.” There is also much more than can be done with regard to detecting and regulating PFAS air pollution, testing and regulating PFAS presence in food byway of food packaging and through the use application of PFAS-containing sludge on U.S. crops, furthering research on health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and to develop safer alternatives to PFAS, and making sure companies are being held accountable for causing this problem in the first place. We will be pushing for continued policy fixes that incorporate the best available science on PFAS.

For now, we want the House version of the NDAA to be as strong as possible when it goes to conference. Call your representative today and tell them to vote in favor of amendments that will mean more action to protect us from PFAS.