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Washington — A key U.S. House panel plans a hearing Wednesday for 13 bills related to toxic PFAS contamination in drinking water. 

Among the bills is a bipartisan measure introduced by Michigan Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, to designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund program within a year. 

They say the legislation would permit the Environmental Protection Agency to direct federal resources to clean up contaminated sites contaminated by the harmful fluorinated compounds. The bill also has bipartisan support in the Senate. 

At Wednesday's hearing, a water official from Ann Arbor is expected to urge House lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change to force polluters to cover the costs of PFAS cleanup and to require more effective controls so the contaminants don't reach watersheds. 

"It may not be until chemicals are already detected in drinking water that risk assessment and exposure evaluations are initiated. This is just too late," Brian Steglitz, manager of water treatment services for Ann Arbor, said in his written testimony. 

PFAS refers to a large class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances 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. 

State officials have detected high levels of PFAS at 49 sites in Michigan, though a recent report by the Environmental Working Group found the state has 192 PFAS sites — the highest in the nation —  when including locations such as schools or apartment buildings where testing found levels of PFAS below the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

“Americans are exposed to PFAS chemicals everyday but some communities are experiencing greater levels of contamination than others, like Ann Arbor, the Huron River watershed and current and former military bases across Michigan," Dingell said.

"The EPA and the federal government has not done their part to keep our communities safe — the time is now for Congress to act.”

Steglitz said more funding is needed for research to understand the public health risks of PFAS because water utilities can't be sure its capital investments are sufficient to address the risk while the science is still under development. 

One of the bills on the committee's agenda Wednesday would require the EPA to establish a grant program to help pay the capital costs associated with installing treatment technologies that can remove detectable amounts of PFAS from affected water systems. 

The bill was introduced last week by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey.

Steglitz said Ann Arbor first detected PFAS in its drinking water in 2014 and has invested about $850,000 (10% of its operating budget) to replace filters with a new type of granular activated carbon media to improve removal of PFAS chemicals from its source waters. That figure doesn't account for ongoing removal costs, he said. 

"The most common question that we receive from our customers is, 'Is our water safe to drink?'" Steglitz wrote. 

A utility would typically respond that it's in compliance with federal standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but "once PFAS emerged as such a widespread contamination problem for water systems, this response is no longer valid," Steglitz said.

"There are no national regulatory limits for PFAS." 

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

Michigan 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. 

One of the bipartisan bills that the House committee will consider this week would do just that, requiring the EPA to take action within two years. Michigan Democratic Reps. Dingell, Dan Kildee of Flint Township and Elissa Slotkin of Holly are co-sponsors. 

Michigan officials are aiming to put in place their own drinking water standards by April 2020, preempting the long-awaited federal drinking water standards for the class of so-called “forever chemicals.”

But one witness set to testify Wednesday warned federal lawmakers against skipping the "scientific, risk-based and data-driven process" that discerns which substances should be regulated in drinking water and at what levels. 

"We understand this process can be frustratingly slow," Tracy Mehan, a representative of the American Water Works Association, said in prepared remarks.

"We caution against setting a precedent of bypassing these established processes via legislative action."

Mehan also urged caution in regard to designating some PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, as called for under Dingell and Upton's bill. 

Mehan warned of "unintended consequences," saying that wastewater utilities receiving and treating water that may contain PFAS compounds could end up being liable for cleaning up the substances even though they're not the source of the contaminant. 

Another bill in Congress, introduced by freshman Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to list PFAS as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. 

The EPA has taken no action to address PFAS under the statute, although earlier this yearthe agency set a goal of developing and testing methods for finding PFAS in the air, as part of its new PFAS Action Plan

Also on tap Wednesday is bipartisan legislation introduced last week by Upton, Dingell, Kildee and Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton. 

The measure would encourage federal agencies to enter into cooperative agreements with states to clean up PFAS-contaminated federal facilities in order to meet state limits from which they are currently exempt. 

According to a bill summary, federal agencies would be required to work with states on a "plan of action" within one year of a request made by the state.

mburke@detroitnews.com 

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