Michigan Dems flood D.C. PFAS hearing: ‘We cannot have another Flint water crisis’

Wagner Falls, Munising | Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON — With the Flint water crisis top-of-mind, Michigan Democrats came out in force Wednesday to address another major threat to safe drinking water: the class of chemicals known as PFAS.

Five of the state’s seven Democratic U.S. House representatives attended a hearing Wednesday on contamination by PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). It was an unusual showing, given that only one of them, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), sits on the subcommittee that held the hearing. 

Four others — U.S. Reps. Daniel Kildee (D-Flint), Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp), Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) — dropped in to press for federal action in the midst of a busy day on Capitol Hill with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance dominating the news cycle.

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The state’s heavy presence showed that its lawmakers care deeply about the health risks associated with PFAS, Dingell said. 

Debbie Dingell at Fortune conference, 2017 | Stuart Isett, Flickr

“Unfortunately, because of Flint, people pay attention to these issues,” she noted.

Lawrence, a member of the full U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, echoed the sentiment. 

“We cannot have another Flint water crisis,” she said. “Water must be clean, it must be safe, and it must be affordable.”

The hearing — the subcommittee’s second this year on the subject — explored corporate responsibility for widespread PFAS contamination, current levels of PFAS contamination across the country, industry efforts to clean up contaminated sites and state efforts to regulate the chemicals and hold polluters accountable. 

It featured testimony from individuals affected by PFAS contamination as well as scientists, state office-holders and other experts from Michigan and other states.

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Sandy Wynn-Stelt, an activist from Belmont, told of purchasing a house in a neighborhood near a Christmas tree farm that turned out to be a dumping ground for the shoe company Wolverine Worldwide. 

Wynn-Stelt’s well water tested at high PFAS levels — a fact she didn’t discover until a year after her husband died of cancer. 

In 2000, the Minnesota-based chemical company 3M discussed PFAS health risks with Wolverine, which had stopped disposing the contaminant there. But Wynn-Stelt said they didn’t inform her or anyone else in the community. 

“We continued to drink contaminated water for the next 16 years,” Wynn-Stelt said.

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No witnesses represented chemical corporations at the hearing. 

3M is slated to testify at a third subcommittee hearing on PFAS in September, and U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) said he hoped DuPont officials would appear, as well.

DuPont issued a statement that the newly independent company is “working closely with Congress and regulators” and “has limited information on the historical events discussed at the hearing.” 

Links to health problems

Used in everything from microwave popcorn bags to nonstick pans, PFAS chemicals are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other health problems.

The substances are present in states across the nation. But contaminated water is of special concern in Michigan, especially in the wake of disastrous cost-cutting measures that led to Flint’s drinking water being contaminated with high levels of lead.

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High concentrations of PFAS have been found at more than 60 sites in Michigan — including military installations that use firefighting foam, a tannery dump in Rockford, the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Detroit, and others — according to Steve Sliver, executive director of the PFAS Action Response Team at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. 

Sliver’s team has tested thousands of wells, more than a third of which had some level of PFAS contamination and 4% of which had levels higher than the health advisory threshold. The group is also testing surface water and fish tissue, surveying drinking water supplies and investigating PFAS levels at many other sites. 

The state has allocated more than $50 million over the last two years to investigate and remediate PFAS contamination, but more resources are needed, Sliver said.

The efforts are taking place with little help from the federal government, which has not established national, enforceable, standard levels for PFAS. He urged the federal government to move more swiftly to address PFAS contamination and urged Congress to ensure that “proactive states like Michigan” have enough funds to protect residents.

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Federal response

Environmental and public health advocates want the federal government to classify PFAS as a class of highly toxic chemicals, regulate their use, limit their presence in drinking water, and shoulder clean up costs. They also want corporations to prove compounds are safe before they discharge them into the environment.

Federal lawmakers from both parties are responding — a rare point of bipartisan action in an era of extreme partisanship. 

U.S. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said he is committed to working toward evidence-based solutions to address the issue. 

“We all want clean drinking water” regardless of our ideology, he said.  

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a public health “action plan” earlier this year, but critics say it doesn’t go far enough.

In June, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would monitor PFAS contamination, eliminate a major source of it, require manufacturers report PFAS discharge, according to the Environmental Working Group. The legislation was passed as amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.

In July, the House passed its own version of the defense bill with its own PFAS amendments. Differences between the House and Senate versions must be hammered out by a conference committee and signed by the president before the legislation can become law. 

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The White House threatened to veto the bill, in part over objections to certain PFAS provisions.

The new head of the U.S. Department of Defense, Mark Esper, this week established a task force to respond to PFAS on military bases. 

“This is a big deal for us,” Rep. Levin said, calling PFAS “the DDT of our era.”

Some lawmakers who have led the charge to crack down on PFAS said they’re encouraged by the development of the task force, but plan to continue to demand urgent action. 

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

Freshman U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) said in a statement that “as a former Pentagon official and now a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I know what an important role the Defense Department has to play in PFAS contamination and clean-up in our state,” and that she supports “Secretary Esper’s move, on the first day of his tenure, to stand up a task force on PFAS contamination.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said in a statement that “PFAS contamination exposure and contamination needs to be taken seriously and must be addressed. I look forward to reviewing the task force’s findings, but in the meantime, I’ll continue pressing for additional actions the Department can take.”

Advance reporter Derek Robertson contributed to this story.

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