WASHINGTON — Michigan lawmakers suffered a stinging setback with the release of a defense policy bill this week that lacks key provisions to crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to serious health problems.
The must-pass legislation represented the lawmakers’ best hope this year for enacting a comprehensive set of strong provisions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other problems.
The compromise defense bill that emerged Monday leaves out a House-passed amendment that would have required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law. The provision would have triggered cleanup of contaminated sites around the country.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who championed the measure, called its exclusion from the bill “inexcusable” and “unforgivable” in an interview with the Advance. “I’m going to do everything I can until we get PFAS listed as a toxic chemical at the federal level,” she said.
Also on the cutting-room floor: language that would have required the EPA to limit PFAS levels in waterways and strengthen regulations on PFAS in drinking water.
The bill does retain some PFAS-related provisions.
“Obviously we didn’t get everything we wanted, but I do think we made some important progress,” U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) told the Advance.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would authorize funding for the U.S. Department of Defense and other national security programs through fiscal year 2020. The $738 billion compromise bill could come up for a vote as early as this week.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), co-chair of the congressional PFAS task force, signed a letter in October threatening to withhold support for the bill if it didn’t “significantly address” PFAS. Dozens of other lawmakers, including several from Michigan, also signed on.
“I am very disappointed that Senate Republicans are blocking meaningful bipartisan legislation to regulate and clean-up PFAS chemicals,” Kildee said in a statement. “If Congress fails to act now on PFAS, service members and the American people may have to wait years for this administration to act.”
The White House threatened to veto the bill in July over certain PFAS provisions but issued a statement of support for the compromise version on Tuesday. The statement flagged the bill’s pay raise for troops, paid parental leave for federal employees and the creation of a U.S. space force.
U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) blamed Senate Republicans for excluding key PFAS provisions from the bill so it could make its way through Congress. Others said House Democrats walked away from negotiations because they felt PFAS provisions were too weak.
Slotkin says the provisions that remain in the base bill still represent progress.
“The most we’ve ever had in any Pentagon budget is a commitment to study PFAS,” she said. “This is the first time we have something that’s actually beyond just studying the problem.”
The former Pentagon official pointed to language that would require the military to transition off of PFAS-laden firefighting foam by 2024, ban the foam in exercises and training, test PFAS levels in military firefighters’ blood and other provisions.
That was what U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) stressed on a Tuesday conference call with reporters, as well.
“We’re trying to continue to push the DOD to act aggressively, particularly in areas like Oscoda, where this has been going on for far too long; we’re trying to get them to act much quicker,” Peters said.
An important provision for Michigan is a provision to open up eligibility for environmental remediation funding to the U.S. National Guard. Current law restricts such funding to active duty bases, which means Michigan’s National Guard bases can’t access the funds.
Hoyer pledged to bring a stand-alone package of stronger PFAS provisions to the House floor in January. Still, such legislation would have to clear the GOP-controlled Senate and White House.
Used in tape, nonstick pans and other everyday items, PFAS 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.
Lawmakers from both parties and numerous states participated in the effort to enact PFAS provisions this year, but Michigan lawmakers — still reeling from the Flint water crisis — played a leading role. Michiganders represent about a quarter of the congressional PFAS task force, showed up in large members to House PFAS hearings this year and backed key legislation.
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.