U.S. House bill aims to boost detection of PFAS in environment

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

Washington — Michigan lawmakers are introducing bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House this week seeking to expedite the federal government's detection of contamination by harmful fluorinated compounds known as PFAS chemicals. 

U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, are pushing the bill regarding PFAS contamination after toxic compounds were detected at high levels in at least 34 sites throughout Michigan, including around military bases in Oscoda, Alpena and Grayling.

PFAS chemicals have long been used in products such as Teflon, Scotchgard and firefighting foam. 

The PFAS Detection Act would designate $50 million over five years for the U.S. Geological Survey to set a performance standard and develop new technologies to detect PFAS in the environment.

The legislation also requires the Geological Survey agency to conduct nationwide sampling for PFAS chemicals to determine the concentration of perfluorinated compounds in water, air and soil, starting with areas with confirmed or suspected PFAS contamination. 

That data could be shared with states like Michigan to help identify contamination and better protect communities, the lawmakers said.

"There’s been a lot of conversation as these particular sites have been revealed about how ubiquitous PFAS is in our environment, but there’s not really good data — just a lot of speculation based on history — about how many sites there might be or where they are located," said Kildee, whose district includes the affected area around the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

"Step one in dealing with a contamination of this magnitude is getting our arms around the size and scope of the problem and sharing that with the relevant agencies of the government."

Bergman said his district includes five sites with confirmed PFAS contamination, including Escanaba, Alpena and Grayling. 

"We introduced this bill to continue our work on gaining a better understanding of how the problem arose and what must be done to remedy the situation," Bergman said.

"As we know, this was not intentional. This was people at the time doing what they thought was right but, as it turned out, it had a long-term negative effect." 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, previously introduced a version of the bill in the Senate with Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota. 

Other sponsors of the House bill include Reps. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Peter Welch, D-Vermont; and Jared Huffman, D-California.

PFAS compounds have been used in manufacturing to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, packaging for food and other products resistant to water, grease or stains.

Starting in the 1970s, the Department of Defense used firefighting foam containing two well-known PFAS compounds — PFOS and sometimes PFOA — for emergency response and training.

Health officials have said the continued exposure to certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water could harm human health. Studies link exposure to developmental effects on fetuses, cancer and effects on liver and immunity function, among other issues.

Michigan lawmakers are pushing another bill in Congress, the PFAS Accountability Act, which would create reporting requirements and deadlines for cleaning up PFAS contamination at federal facilities, including current and decommissioned military bases. 

That bill was introduced earlier this year in the Senate by Stabenow and in the House by Reps. Kildee; Dingell; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; and Tim Walberg, R-Tipton. 

The legislation urges federal agencies to expedite or amend cooperative agreements with states to produce a plan of action within a year of a request from the state.

Stabenow's office has said such agreements would lay out actions that federal authorities would take and guarantee states and local communities are reimbursed for costs incurred to address PFAS contamination.

Both bills are expected to be reintroduced in the next session of Congress starting in January if not taken up by year's end.