Dingell pans Dem-led committee for axing PFAS cleanup from defense bill

U.S. Capitol | Image by David Mark from Pixabay

WASHINGTON — An effort to crack down on toxic chemicals has been thwarted again — this time by Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell — a Dearborn Democrat who has championed the issue in Congress — and other lawmakers were hoping to amend a defense authorization bill this week with a series of strong provisions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in tape, nonstick pans and other everyday items and linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

Debbie Dingell at a housing hearing in Detroit | Ken Coleman

One provision would have required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a national enforceable drinking water standard for certain types of PFAS. Similar language was stripped out of last year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before it cleared Congress in December.

The amendment would also have accelerated the cleanup of the most harmful PFAS chemicals, required the EPA to test health effects for all PFAS chemicals, provided grants to affected water systems and limit industrial PFAS emissions and pollution into the air, water and soil.

Dingell’s amendment had bipartisan support, including from U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph).

A Democratic-led committee ruled the amendment out of order Friday, surprising — and infuriating — Dingell. 

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why we cannot set a safe drinking water standard for PFAS or require the cleanup of contaminated sites,” she said in a statement.

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In an interview with the Advance, she questioned why “we can give billionaires tax cuts but we can’t protect safe drinking water.”

House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, sought to limit the number of controversial amendments to the bill this year and raised concerns about the bill’s potential cost, Dingell said. 

But she dismissed those concerns, saying, “The money’s there.” 

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

The House is considering hundreds of amendments to the NDAA this year, including others related to PFAS that would require manufacturers to disclose PFAS discharges; increase funding to study the issue; require online disclosure of PFAS testing on military installations and former defense sites; and take other steps.

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The GOP-led U.S. Senate isn’t expected to include a provision creating a national drinking standard in its version of the bill. 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.

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 and citing her PFAS Action Act, which would also create a national PFAS drinking water standard, among other things. More than 100 lawmakers, including other Michigan Democrats and Upton, signed on to the letter.

PFAS have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country. Michigan is known to have high numbers of such contaminated sites — in large part because the state, still reeling from the Flint water crisis, has taken aggressive action to identify them. 

The PFAS Action Act passed the House in January with bipartisan support. Nine Michigan lawmakers — including seven Democrats and two Republicans — voted for the bill. Five Michigan lawmakers voted against it: U.S.Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), John Moolenaar (R-Midland), Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) and Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) and Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.).

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The White House threatened to veto the act, claiming it would “create considerable litigation risk, set problematic and unreasonable rulemaking timelines and precedents and impose substantial, unwarranted costs” on agencies and others.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the White House added, is “taking extensive efforts to help communities address PFAS nationwide” through its PFAS Action Plan.

Dingell vowed to continue to press forward with bolder reform efforts. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” she told the Advance, pointing to the appropriations process as a possible legislative opportunity. “I am never giving up.”