WASHINGTON — The President Trump administration has failed to act swiftly enough to protect the public from harmful contaminants present in drinking water throughout the country, U.S. senators told senior administration officials Thursday.
Democrats and Republicans alike expressed frustration over the federal government’s response to the widespread drinking water contamination by chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the issue.
In a U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing earlier this month, there was a similar bipartisan reaction. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), founder and co-chair of the congressional PFAS Task Force, testified 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.”
The man-made chemicals — used in everything from fire-fighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are found 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.
“Far too many communities worry about the quality of their drinking water in this country,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said at the hearing, where officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense testified about the federal response to the health risks associated with the chemicals.
EPA and DOD, Duckworth said, have “failed to understand the scope of the PFAS problem and they’ve failed to determine how to dispose of the chemical — which persists in the environment and our bodies — and regulate the chemical.”
The Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but critics say it isn’t aggressive enough, and the administration won’t commit to a timeline for regulation.
David Ross, EPA’s top water official, said the agency is committed to “proposing a regulatory determination this year” and would “move through that process as expeditiously as possible.”
But he declined to give a timeline for regulating PFAS in drinking water.
“It’s a long process, to be frank,” Ross said, adding that the agency was committed to using the best science possible.
Public exposure to PFAS chemicals is “extremely widespread,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, told lawmakers. She testified that in the United States, studies have shown “virtually all individuals” — 97 percent — have “detectable” PFAS concentrations in their blood.
Exposure to the chemicals is a major concern in Michigan, which has dozens of impacted sites, including the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda. 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, and an Air Force official is set to visit soon, the Advance reported.
But the issue is also pervasive across the country, and senators from diverse states on Thursday stressed their concerns to administration officials.
“Addressing PFAS contamination is an urgent matter in my state, my constituents in New York, all across the country,” said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who’s running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and visited Michigan last week. “I’ve been to so many states in the last year and they have this same crucial issue.”
She added, “People are very worried, they’re angry and they desperately want leadership out of this committee and out of this country.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) criticized what he perceives as a “lack of urgency” from the EPA when it comes to addressing the issue. He noted that the Trump administration acted quickly to roll back the President Obama administration environmental regulations on clean water and climate change.
But when it comes to “access to clean drinking water, we’re told that EPA can’t even begin to guess when even a single step to protect Americans is finalized.”
If the administration won’t act, Carper said, “I think that Congress needs to.”
West Virginia Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said she was working with Gillibrand and Carper to draft legislation to address the contamination.
“I am concerned that we’re falling slightly short here,” Capito said of the federal response. “If this was the water that your children and grandchildren were drinking, what would be the emerging level of concern, rather than having it occur somewhere else?”
A bipartisan group of Michigan U.S. House members, Kildee, Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), have introduced legislation on the other side of the Capitol 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.
Maryland U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen pointed to military sites in their state where PFAS contamination has been detected. Those include the White Oak Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Detachment, Fort Meade, the Naval Research Laboratory Chesapeake Bay Detachment and the Naval Academy.
Cardin called for the government to strive to “prevent further contamination where we can,” but also to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for paying for cleanup.
Van Hollen also noted concerns about NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va., a popular tourist destination where PFAS contaminants were detected.
“We’ve had concerns raised by federal employees who work there,” Van Hollen said.
NASA used firefighting foam containing PFAS at Wallops, the Associated Press reported. The agency said last summer that the water there had been PFAS-free for more than a year.
Ross told Van Hollen Thursday that EPA’s regional staff was working with Virginia and the local community to evaluate the contamination and provide technical assistance.