Kildee, House lawmakers launching PFAS task force

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and lawmakers from Michigan and Pennsylvania at a PFAS press conference in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, January 23, 2019.

Washington — House lawmakers are launching a new task force devoted to PFAS issues Wednesday, aiming to craft bipartisan legislation related to the crisis and press for more funding for research and to clean up contaminated sites.

U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, will co-chair the group with the goal of building support in the public and the Congress for a "more aggressive, forward-looking agenda" on PFAS, Kildee said. 

A main thrust of the task force will be educating members of Congress and their staffs who haven’t yet dealt with the class of fluorinated chemicals "but likely soon will," Kildee said. 

"We know this is a pervasive issue around the country, but it’s really only been front and center in a handful of places so far. We need to do some things to move policy," Kildee said.

"It's important that our leadership in both parties and committee leadership understands how urgent it is that we address this."

Like Kildee, Fitzpatrick's district has been affected by PFAS contamination and hopes the new group will amplify the need for funding, legislation and holding the administration accountable, he said. 

"Up until today, what you had was a lot of individual members advocating individually for their specific communities that were impacted," Fitzpatrick said. 

"What this task force will do is allow us to collectively speak with one voice on behalf of all people across the country who’ve been affected by contamination."

An estimated 16 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico have PFAS-contaminated tap water, according to research by Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group. 

Michigan is a hot spot of the crisis with the toxic compounds detected at high levels in at least 34 sites throughout the state, including around military bases in Oscoda, Alpena and Grayling, according to state data.

"We are concerned that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, noting West Michigan communities along the Grand River that have tested positive for PFAS, including Robinson Elementary School in Ottawa County.

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

PFAS compounds, which build up in the environment and the body, have been used for decades in manufacturing to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabric, packaging for food and other products resistant to water, grease or stains.

The Department of Defense has used firefighting foam containing two well-known PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, for emergency response and training.

"The federal government was a facilitator in the (PFAS) use, mainly on military bases, but ultimately I believe the producers and manufacturers of the chemicals should ultimately be the ones to pay for the cleanup, which is going to be very significant," Fitzpatrick said. 

The bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force has 20 members, and organizers expect more to join.

Other Michigan members include Reps. Huizenga; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Tim Walberg, R-Tipton; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet; Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township; Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills; and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

Dingell said the House Energy & Commerce Committee has pressed the Environemtnal Protection Agency about its delayed PFAS management plan and is planning a PFAS oversight hearing "soon."

Lawmakers are pushing various PFAS-related bills on Capitol Hill, including one introduced last week that would designate the chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund program.

Kildee and Fitzpatrick, among others, have called for the EPA to set a national enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water

The health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion set in 2016 can't be used to enforce cleanups or regulate the chemicals' use.

Rep. Brandon Boyle, D-Pennsylvania, is pressing legislation that would add such an enforceable standard for PFAS to the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

"The standard there now is voluntary, and any cleanup that happens is voluntary," Boyle said. 

Lawmakers also want the federal government to expedite the detection of contaminated sites around the country and have proposed giving the U.S.Geological Survey dedicated funding to conduct nationwide sampling.

"There's a lot of speculation, particularly around military sites, but even in the private sector we know it’s a ubiquitous substance, and we have to get our arms around that," Kildee said. 

Kildee said there's no indication the Trump administration is taking the PFAS crisis "as seriously as we know it to be." 

"It's important this is a bipartisan effort because, despite what the administration may or may not be doing, we can act to push through legislation that addresses the problem," he said. "Hopefully, the EPA will catch up."