Peters, Johnson seek info on conflict delaying PFAS cleanup guidelines

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Gary Peters

Washington — The leaders of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security committee are seeking information about a reported disagreement among federal agencies that is holding up groundwater cleanup guidelines for toxic PFAS chemicals.

U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, wrote Friday to the White House Office of Management and Budget, seeking documents and communications between that office and departments involved in an interagency review prompted by the conflict over standards for the chemicals, known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. 

Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security panel, and Peters, its top Democrat, urged OMB to resolve any remaining conflicts and conclude its review "as soon as possible." 

The senators were reacting to a report last week in the New York Times that the Pentagon is urging the Trump administration to set a less stringent standard for the well-known PFAS compounds PFOS and PFOA than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had sought.

NASA and the Small Business Administration had also reportedly raised objections. 

"I am deeply troubled by a recent report that the EPA’s PFAS guidelines have been delayed because certain federal agencies are trying to avoid their responsibility to clean up toxic PFAS chemicals,” Peters said in a statement.

“Communities in Michigan and across the country are facing a serious public health crisis, and we cannot afford to wait any longer."

PFAS compounds have been used to make furniture, paper packaging for food and cookware resistant to water, grease or stains, as well as firefighting foam used by the military and airports.

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. 

According to the Times, the EPA sent its recommended guidelines for when PFAS cleanups are required at military bases and other federal sites to the OMB for approval in August 2018. But those guidelines have still not been released for public comment or been finalized. 

The EPA proposed that federal sites contaminated by PFAS be cleaned up to a level equal to the agency's current drinking water lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, according to a March 13 letter sent to the EPA by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate environment committee. 

Carper said the Department of Defense has agreed to clean up to the 70 ppt standard only after the levels of PFOA and PFAS exceed 400 ppt, resulting in cleanup at fewer military installations.

The Pentagon also wants the levels of PFOS and PFOA to be counted separately, rather than combined as the EPA proposed, he said.  

"This means that people who live both on and off contaminated federal sites would not be assured of protection from contamination well in excess of the 70 ppt level that EPA has said is needed" for public health, Carper wrote. 

"Many of these sites have languished for years, even decades." 

Michigan has dozens of confirmed sites where PFAS has been detected, including the area near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

The U.S. Air Force last year had sought to claim sovereign immunity from state environmental quality regulations and water protection laws, telling Michigan officials in December that it would not make any new efforts to clean up chemical contamination around Wurtsmith.

Michigan lawmakers objected, and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson this month committed to working with the state "to find effective solutions within our authorities," according to a letter released by Peters' office. 

Peters and Johnson are asking OMB to provide information by April 4 on the ongoing interagency review related to the PFAS cleanup standards, and asked OMB to disclose when it plans to release the draft guidance back to EPA.