WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and other Democrats on Wednesday accused the President Trump administration of failing to act swiftly enough to protect the public from dangerous chemicals found in drinking water.
At a hearing held by the U.S. House Oversight Committee, Kildee criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Defense Department for lagging on efforts to force the cleanup of ubiquitous and harmful chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
Kildee is the founder and co-chair of the congressional PFAS Task Force, along with U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). Kildee, who also serves as majority chief deputy whip, called PFAS contamination “a public health crisis impacting literally hundreds of communities across this country.”
The man-made chemicals — used in everything from fire-fighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are prevalent on military bases and in other U.S. communities. They have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems, and environmental and public health advocates want faster cleanup and strict guidelines for the allowable limits of the chemicals in drinking water.
“It’s my view that the Defense Department in particular has so far failed to act with the required urgency to address this growing public health and environmental crisis,” Kildee said.
Kildee has been a leading figure on the fight for clean water for his hometown of Flint. The issue there was lead and legionella in the water, a separate problem from PFAS.
The Democratic lawmaker pointed to the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda, which lies in his district. The base was decommissioned in 1993, but PFAS chemicals continue to pollute the groundwater.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) has been raising the issue on the other side of the Capitol. Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson is set to visit the base soon, as the Advance reported.
“Despite the Defense Department knowing about this PFAS chemical contamination at Wurtsmith since 2012, the military has failed to act quickly enough to stop contamination,” Kildee said. “Clearly more has to be done and there must be greater urgency.”
Kildee introduced legislation in 2017 that requires the Defense Department to conduct a national health study on the impacts of the chemicals.
He and other lawmakers also reiterated their stance that the Environmental Protection Agency of moving too slowly.
The Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but Kildee and others say the administration is dragging its heels, as the Advance has reported.
“By recognizing these chemicals as hazardous substances, the EPA can then require polluters to clean up contamination they cause,” Kildee said. “I have to admit I was quite disappointed to see the plan not specify a timeline to begin taking meaningful action on cleanup or establishing a national health standard for PFAS in drinking water.”
Bipartisan legislation was introduced in January by Kildee, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) that instructs the EPA administrator to designate PFAS as a “hazardous substance.” The designation allows the agency to tap federal resources for remediation of contaminated sites.
David Ross, the head of EPA’s water office, touted EPA’s PFAS action plan as an important step forward in addressing the public health concerns. Dealing with the contamination is a “top priority” for the agency, Ross told lawmakers.
U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), the chairman of the oversight subcommittee that held Wednesday’s hearing, questioned EPA’s “sense of urgency” on tackling PFAS, pressing Ross for specific timelines and milestones.
“We are committed to getting a proposed regulatory determination out this year, and then we’ll work through that system that Congress has established for us as expeditiously as we can,” Ross replied.
U.S. Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) pointed to comments former Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made last year, calling PFAS contamination a “national emergency.”
A year later, “EPA has still not regulated these chemicals,” Hill said, asking Ross whether he would also consider the problem a national emergency.
Ross stopped short of using the word emergency.
He said, “We do believe it is a major national issue for EPA and our federal partners to address. This is an emerging issue and we have been working it aggressively.”