Bipartisan lawmakers: Congress will act on PFAS rules if EPA won't

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Senator Gary Peters

Washington — Michigan lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are raising concerns about the possibility that federal regulators won't set an enforceable standard for two dangerous chemicals that have contaminated drinking water in Michigan and around the country. 

They are reacting to unconfirmed reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided not to regulate the well-known compounds PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to anonymous sources that spoke to POLITICO

"If it’s true, it’s simply unacceptable. We have to have a standard," said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

"It is clear that PFAS is a significant health risk. We have to address it. We have to clean it up, but in order to do that we need to have an enforceable standard that everybody can clean up to." 

PFOA and PFOS are part of a large class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used to make furniture, paper packaging for food and cookware resistant to water, grease or stains.

The chemicals are linked to health effects including certain cancers and damage to liver and immunity functions, developmental impacts on fetuses, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children. 

Lawmakers and environmental advocates have pressed the EPA to set a "maximum contaminant level" for PFAS compounds to ensure a single national standard to protect the safety of drinking water in all communities. 

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

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said doing nothing is not an option.

"It’s not acceptable. We need to know what the answer really should be. We’re entrusting EPA to tell us," said Upton, former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

US Rep. Fred Upton, R-St Joseph

Upton's southwest Michigan district had a scare last summer after the water system in Parchment tested at 1,587 ppt for PFAS chemicals, far exceeding the 70 ppt threshold.

Residents were unable to drink or cook with their water until their lines were hooked into the Kalamazoo water supply. Some homes with wells are still relying on weekly deliveries of bottled water, Upton said.

"For folks in these communities and anywhere in the nation, we need to get them cleaned them up, and we need to know if the standard should be less than 70 parts per trillion," Upton said.  

"It’s not acceptable not to get a study done or tell us what that level of safety should be. We suspect we'll hear from EPA next month on this, but there will be plenty of opportunity for us to hold their feet to the fire so they're accountable."

Peters of Bloomfield Township said recent events have bolstered his belief that Congress must act soon to direct the EPA to establish enforceable standards on PFAS.

"I’d like to move fairly quickly," said Peters, who last year held two PFAS hearings.

"In my new position as ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, I’ve already talked to Chairman (Ron) Johnson about this issue, and he’s agreed we will hold hearings and work on PFAS legislation that I'm currently drafting."

POLITICO reported the drinking water decision is part of the PFAS management plan promised by the EPA last year and currently undergoing inter-agency review. 

EPA's Office of Water Assistant Administration David Ross issued a statement in response to the reports, saying the plan has not been finalized, and speculation about what is included is "premature." 

"The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing inter-agency review," Ross said.

Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said Congress should require the agency to set a limit if the administration refuses to do so. 

"EPA officials came to Michigan and saw contaminated sites and heard the urgent need for action," Dingell said. "It's disappointing reports indicate the opposite." 

Kildee said refusing to set a drinking-water standard for PFAS would limit the public's knowledge about what's in their water and restrict the cleanup of contaminated sites.

"While the Trump administration has claimed it wants to address PFAS, they have been all talk and no action," said Kildee, who recently launched a congressional PFAS task force with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and others.

Fitzpatrick, a Republican, said recent reports suggest the EPA is "shirking" its responsibility to safeguard drinking water, saying a national standard is necessary to protect American families from contamination.  

"If the EPA refuses to do its job, Congress must intercede," Fitzpatrick said.

The head of EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water testified last fall that the agency is not looking at revising the 70 ppt advisory level, despite a Health and Human Services Department's assessment in 2018 that PFAS can cause risks to human health at lower levels than 70 ppt. 

"As the science continues to develop, we will look back at this issue," the EPA's Peter Grevatt told a Senate hearing.

Grevatt said the EPA would consider designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances" under the Superfund statute. It's also developing groundwater cleanup recommendations for certain PFAS-contaminated sites.

PFOS and PFOA have been used in firefighting foam, deployed for emergency response and training at military and civilian airfields.

Michigan officials have been pressing the U.S. Air Force for swifter clean up of chemical contamination at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. 

But the service last month warned Michigan regulators that the state has no authority to regulate federal facilities, and that it would not make any new cleanup efforts at Wurtsmith.

Peters said he surprised by the Air Force's response, which "was certainly different than what I’ve heard directly in conversations with the secretary of the Air Force and the deputy secretary, who I also had in my office discussing this issue."

"The federal government definitely has a responsibility to address this issue, but in order to get the federal government involved you need to have a federal standard," the senator said.

"That's why it’s critical the EPA put out a federal standard so the Department of Defense and other federal agencies can be part of the cleanup."

Peters wrote Friday to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, suggesting the Air Force is not working in good faith with Michigan and urging her to cooperate with the state on decontamination efforts around Wurtsmith.

"This aggressive and defensive posture amidst the ongoing dispute resolution process with the state is unproductive at best, and it concerns me that so little has been accomplished since PFAS was confirmed at Wurtsmith in 2010," Peters wrote.

"The Air Force’s refusal to meet the State of Michigan’s water quality standards only serves to reinforce my sense that Congress must move swiftly to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish enforceable and protective federal standards."