Facing ‘grassroots demand’ back home, Michigan lawmakers wage war on PFAS

Actor Mark Ruffalo at a PFAS press conference with Rep. Dan Kildee in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019 | Allison Stevens

WASHINGTON — Michigan lawmakers are fueling a bipartisan congressional campaign to crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems.

Rep. Dan Kildee in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019 | Allison Stevens

“The momentum is growing for PFAS legislation,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) told the Michigan Advance in an interview on Capitol Hill this week. 

He also participated in a Tuesday news conference in Washington with actor Mark Ruffalo, perhaps best known as playing “The Hulk” in the Marvel movies, highlighting the risks of PFAS in water. Ruffalo visited Flint in 2016 during the water crisis. 

Used in tape, nonstick pans, microwave popcorn bags and other everyday products, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other health problems. 

They have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country but are of special concern in Michigan, which is known to have high numbers of contaminated sites — in large part because the state has taken aggressive action to identify them. High concentrations have been found in 178 drinking water systems in the state, eight military sites, and 16 other sites, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

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Contaminated sites include the former Wurtsmith Airforce Base in Kildee’s 5th Congressional District, the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Detroit, in Melvindale sewer systems and a tannery dump in Rockford, according to the PFAS Action Response Team at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). 

Lawmakers from both parties and numerous states are calling for federal action, but Michigan lawmakers — still reeling from the Flint water crisis — are playing a leading role. They’re calling for PFAS legislation in Congress, pressing for action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and raising public awareness about the issue.

“There’s a sense of urgency with many of my colleagues from Michigan,” U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) said Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) agreed. 

“For any member of Congress from Michigan, PFAS is a big issue,” she said in an interview in her Washington office this week. There’s a “grassroots demand signal coming from our constituents, and rightly so.”

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Michigan’s lawmakers represent about a quarter of the congressional PFAS task force — which is co-chaired by Kildee — and have shown up in large members to House PFAS hearings this year. U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) also support action.

Their best hope for immediate action is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual “must pass” bill that includes numerous PFAS provisions. “We know that bill goes to the president’s desk,” Kildee told the Advance. “We have to have a defense authorization.”

The House and Senate each passed its own version of the NDAA last summer, and some PFAS-related provisions in the bills differ. 

Slotkin, a former Pentagon official and the only Michigan Democrat on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, pushed for a number of PFAS provisions in the bill, including calls for the U.S. Department of Defense to clean up affected sites and increasing access to cleanup funds.

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Members of a House-Senate conference committee are now negotiating differences between the bills.

“My ardent hope is that we are voting on a package that includes the NDAA with the PFAS provisions included,” Slotkin said.

Kildee said he’s in conversations with House leadership to make sure that PFAS provisions remain in the final bill. He said one non-negotiable item is a provision in the House version that would require the EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). If passed, the provision would trigger cleanup of sites contaminated by PFAS.

Kildee and dozens of other lawmakers — including Slotkin and others from Michigan — signed a letter last month threatening to withhold support for the NDAA if it doesn’t include the CERCLA provision. “This is something we just have to get done,” Kildee said. “It’s that important.”

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

But Kildee shrugged off President Trump’s threat. “If Congress sends the president a defense authorization act that also happens to protect public health, I think he’s going to have a hard time explaining why he would veto it.”

Another possibility for action in the near term is House-approved funding to address PFAS. That “could be helpful” but it is being held up by the Senate, said Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee considered comprehensive PFAS legislation this week. Kildee expects the full House to take up the legislation but said prospects in the U.S. Senate are unclear. “The question then, as is the case with almost everything, is will [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch Mconnell (R-Ky.) show up for work,” he told the Advance.

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This week also featured the U.S. House’s fourth PFAS hearing in the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on the Environment, which Democrats used to call for the EPA to take immediate action to regulate PFAS. 

The EPA unveiled a PFAS “action plan” in February and is expected to roll out a set of recommendations before the end of the year that will provide a “starting point” for making site-specific cleanup decisions.

But critics say the action plan doesn’t go far enough to contain and clean up PFAS and are skeptical the new recommendations will put public health over corporate profits.

“No administration in history has done more to weaken air and water pollution standards, so I am expecting a lump of coal from [EPA chief] Andy Wheeler, literally and figuratively,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “That does not bode well for communities that are struggling with PFAS pollution.”

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Slotkin, meanwhile, is urging the U.S. Department of Defense to quickly transition off of PFAS-laden fire fighting foam used by the U.S. military. In a letter last month to the head of the Pentagon’s PFAS Task Force, she said the cost of doing so is small when weighed against the long-term impacts on health and safety.

In previous House hearings this year, Democratic lawmakers accused leading chemical companies such as DuPont TK and 3M of withholding information from the public about the chemicals’ harmful effects on public health — allegations Tlaib raised Tuesday. “Corporate greed is a disease in our country and it is killing our people,” she said.

Corporate representatives have denied the claims and said there is no known link to negative health effects.

Actor Mark Ruffalo at a PFAS press conference with Rep. Dan Kildee in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019 | Allison Stevens

Also this week, a public interest media company launched a campaign to raise awareness about so-called “forever” chemicals. The cornerstone of the campaign is a new film — to be released Friday — that chronicles the life of Robert Bilott, a former environmental attorney who brought the harmful effects of a PFAS chemical to light in a case against DuPont.

The film, “Dark Waters,” is “a story about bringing justice to communities that have been living with PFAS for decades,” said Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays Bilott in the film. 

“What we’re doing here today is we’re basically gathering lawmakers and building momentum to have some legislation on this issue to protect us,” Ruffalo said at a PFAS press conference on Capitol Hill this week.