Michigan lawmakers make another push to crack down on PFAS

Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON — After suffering a stinging setback last year, federal lawmakers from Michigan and other states are making another push to crack down on a widespread class of “forever chemicals” linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

Several are pressing for a strong set of provisions in a defense policy bill that would address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in tape, nonstick pans and other everyday items and have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country. 

A top priority: Requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a national enforceable drinking water standard for certain types of PFAS within two years and list them as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law.

“From a policy standpoint, this is the space we need to be in,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and co-chair of a congressional PFAS task force, told the Advance Tuesday. Enacting such legislation would be “really meaningful.”

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Language that would have done that was stripped out of last year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before it cleared Congress in December. The provision would have triggered cleanup of contaminated sites in Michigan and around the country.  Michigan is known to have high numbers of such contaminated sites — in large part because the state has taken aggressive action to identify them. 

Some PFAS-related provisions in last year’s bill did make it into law, such as those that require the military to transition off of PFAS-laden firefighting foam by 2024, ban the foam in exercises and training and test PFAS levels in military firefighters’ blood.

But Kildee and other lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), want to enact a stronger set of PFAS provisions — and see this year’s defense authorization bill as their best hope of doing so.

The bill, which would provide funding for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and other national security programs through the end of fiscal year 2021, is regarded as “must-pass” legislation and therefore seen as an optimal target for PFAS-related amendments.

It is being marked up in the U.S. House Armed Services Committee Wednesday and is under debate in the U.S. Senate this week.

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Slotkin, a former Pentagon official who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday she supports PFAS-related provisions that would require the Pentagon to apply the strictest standards available to PFAS clean up efforts; publicly disclose PFAS testing results; prohibit the purchase of items with high levels of PFAS, like nonstick cookware; and study PFAS alternatives.

She also backs provisions approved by a House Armed Services subcommittee that would require the Pentagon to notify Congress of all releases of PFAS-containing firefighting foam; incentivize the development of firefighting materials that don’t contain PFAS; and facilitate the phase-out of the use of PFAS in military firefighting materials.

When it comes to PFAS, she said, “We gotta keep our foot on the gas.” 

Other committee members are expected to introduce other PFAS-related amendments this week, such as language that would establish an interagency fund to streamline and collect data from anti-PFAS initiatives and report findings to Congress.

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Calls for ‘bolder steps’

Kildee, Dingell, Slotkin and other lawmakers also want “bolder” action on the issue.

In May, Dingell sent a letter to Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Armed Services Committee calling for “strong” PFAS provisions in the final defense authorization bill. More than 100 lawmakers, including Kildee and Slotkin, signed it.

Ultimately, they hope the defense authorization bill contains the PFAS Action Act, legislation sponsored by Dingell that would, among other things, designate certain PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law. 

The text of the bill, which the House passed in January, is expected to be offered as an amendment to the defense authorization bill when it comes up for debate on the House floor.

On the other side of the Capitol, some senators are offering PFAS-related amendments to the Senate version of the bill during this week’s floor debate. But the Senate version isn’t expected to include the provision that would create a national enforceable drinking water standard for certain types of PFAS under the Superfund law. Both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), supported the standard in last year’s bill.

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill will be ironed out in conference committee, where the Superfund provision was struck last year. 

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The White House threatened to veto the PFAS Action Act in January because it would “create considerable litigation risk, set problematic and unreasonable rulemaking timelines and precedents and impose substantial, unwarranted costs” on agencies and others.

The EPA, the White House added, is “taking extensive efforts to help communities address PFAS nationwide” through its PFAS Action Plan.

In an interview, Kildee blamed Senate Republicans for removing strong PFAS provisions from last year’s defense authorization bill but also said House Democrats could have fought harder to keep them in. This year, he wants to see House lawmakers “hold firm” during House-Senate negotiations in conference committee.

Dingell told the Advance she is optimistic that they will, noting that her PFAS Action Act passed the House this year with strong support, including from a significant number of Republicans.

She also says stronger PFAS provisions have a better chance of becoming law this year than they did last year. “It’s another year later,” she said. “People are seeing what PFAS is doing.”

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, agreed. “The landscape has shifted since last year,” he said, noting that few issues resonate more in an election year than protecting service members. “So we’ll see,” he said.