Michigan lawmakers brace for ‘direct conflict’ with Trump on PFAS

President Donald Trump
President Donald J. Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday, June 26, 2019, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to Japan. | Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian, Flickr
Updated, 3:09 p.m. 7/12/19, with the vote on the bill

WASHINGTON — Michigan lawmakers are ready to brawl with President Trump over the dangerous chemicals that contaminate drinking water across the state. 

New protections against chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are included in a major defense spending bill that cleared the U.S. House on Friday on a 220-197 vote. The Michigan delegation was divided 8-5 against it, with U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), voting no along with all Republicans and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.). U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) didn’t vote.*

The PFAS provisions have broad bipartisan backing, but Trump has threatened to veto the House bill, objecting in part to a provision that would phase out the use of PFAS in military firefighting foam. 

Trump threatens to veto defense spending bill with PFAS protections

Trump’s PFAS comments shocked members of the Michigan delegation, who pushed to include the protections as residents of the state grow increasingly concerned about the risks posed by the ubiquitous chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems. 

“I will be honest, I did not think that we’d be having a conversation about the president of the United States threatening to veto a bill because of PFAS,” U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) told the Michigan Advance during an interview in her Capitol Hill office. 

Slotkin, a former Pentagon official who now serves on the House Armed Services Committee, worked to include provisions in the bill to phase out the PFAS firefighting foam and to authorize funding to clean up PFAS contamination.  

Michigan has the highest number of sites known to be contaminated with PFAS of any state in the country. The Environmental Working Group this week released an updated map showing at least 712 sites in 49 states with known PFAS contamination. 

Elissa Slotkin
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin | Susan J. Demas

Slotkin said Trump’s opposition surprised her in part because “every piece of legislation that I know of on PFAS in this Congress has been bipartisan. It’s about people’s health, their drinking water, their lakes, their rivers, their military base.” 

She said she’d heard “a lot of foot-dragging at the Pentagon” and a reluctance to accept responsibility for cleanup or for health issues among those who had used PFAS-laden firefighting foam. The White House cited “potentially great cost to and significant impact” to the Defense Department’s mission in its veto threat. 

After the House’s expected passage of the bill it will be negotiated with the Senate, whose version of the defense legislation also includes PFAS cleanup and protection measures. 

“I think this sets up a direct conflict between members on both sides of the aisle who have communities who are really screaming about this and the president — who’s probably as far away from those communities as you can get,” Slotkin said. 

She said her constituents are extremely concerned about PFAS contamination. “Michigan is really unfortunately at the forefront of this and I think we’re going to have to have a showdown on health and people’s safety and the environment versus money, frankly.” 

Wurtsmith Air Museum
Wurtsmith Air Museum, near former the Air Force base from which PFAS has contaminated Oscoda | Michael Gerstein

Other Michigan lawmakers have also pressed to include additional PFAS provisions in the defense bill. 

This week, the House voted to include an amendment in the bill to require military installations to coordinate with state and local communities on PFAS cleanup. That amendment was co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph). 

Another amendment adopted by the House from Dingell and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) would bar the U.S. Defense Department’s logistics agency from using PFAS-containing substances to assemble or package meals ready-to-eat (MREs). 

And the House on Friday agreed to an amendment from Dingell and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) that would designate PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law.

Dingell said of the White House opposition to the House legislation, “If the president wants to veto this bill because he thinks the PFAS provisions go too far, I invite him to drink, bathe, or swim in some of the water our communities do. Congress needs to act to address PFAS contamination wherever it exists and stop kicking the can down the road.”

Robin Bravender
Michigan native Robin Bravender is the DC Bureau Chief for the Newsroom, a consortium of 10 nonprofit news publications, including the Michigan Advance. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.

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