Defense bill includes provisions that could boost PFAS cleanup in Michigan

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Hundreds of communities across the country are struggling with contamination by PFAS chemicals, including an area downstream from the Barton Dam in Ann Arbor.

Washington — A defense authorization bill introduced in the U.S. House this week would try to force the Pentagon to produce a plan for cleaning up PFAS chemicals at military installations and phasing out fire-fighting foam containing the toxic fluorinated chemicals.

Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said she pushed to get the measures included in the National Defense Authorization Act measure as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which is set Wednesday to mark up the legislation. 

"To be honest, the military has hemmed and hawed on how to handle this. They’ve talked about how difficult it is, and they've sent different messages on their willingness to do it and the difficulty of doing it," said Slotkin, a former top Pentagon official.

"This clears that up by saying, you know what? Come up with a plan and report back to us."

Text included in the bill would require the Department of Defense to develop best practices for PFAS clean-ups and disposal of PFAS-contaminated groundwater, soil and filters by 2025 and to find an alternative to PFAS-containing firefighting foam by 2029.

"That felt like a long ways away for me, so I am actually offering two amendments: One encourages accelerating that timeline to transition off PFAS firefighting foam before 2029 and the second would prohibit the use of PFAS firefighting foam in training exercises," Slotkin said, adding the training provision would take effect immediately. 

"Considering that in Michigan a lot of our exercises are training exercises, it would have an immediate impact on our National Guard forces in Michigan."

Slotkin said she is hopeful the provisions will be enacted considering the bipartisan support for reducing PFAS contamination overall and among Michigan's three members on the committee, including Republican Reps. Paul Mitchell of Dryden and Jack Bergman of Watersmeet.

Hundreds of communities across the country are struggling with contamination by PFAS chemicals, particularly near military bases where the firefighting foam has long been used in training and emergency response. 

PFAS refers to a class of nearly 5,000 chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that have been used for decades to produce furniture, paper packaging for food and make 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. 

The Senate version of the NDAA legislation also contains a provision that would bar the Department of Defense from purchasing firefighting foam that contains PFAS after Oct. 1, 2022, according to the office of Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

The Senate bill, which the panel approved last month, includes a Peters-sponsored measure aimed at encouraging cooperative agreements between federal agencies and states on cleanup plans that meet the requirements of both state and federal entities. 

It would encourage the Department of Defense to finalize cooperative agreements with states and partner with governors to address, test, monitor, remove or remediate PFAS contamination originating from DoD activities, including at decommissioned military installations and National Guard facilities

An additional measure in the House bill would allow the National Guard to access  environmental remediation funds for five years — funds that are typically reserved for active-duty military, Slotkin said. Mitchell also pressed for this measure, a spokesman said.

"This impacts us disproportionately in Michigan because all of our bases are National Guard. We no longer have active-duty bases," Slotkin said. 

"This request came specifically from the Michigan National Guard. They know that they're getting hit on questions of PFAS contamination all the time, and they flagged for us that it would be nice if they had access to this environmental remediation fund because, otherwise, cleanup costs comes out of hide — out of their own budget — which is a lot to ask any military base." 

The legislation also bulks up by $121.3 million the environmental remediation accounts specifically to address PFAS contaminated drinking water near military installations.

The bill additionally requires the Pentagon to provide blood testing for each Defense Department firefighter during their annual physical exam to check for potential exposure to PFAS. It authorizes the Defense Department to continue funding a study of the health implications of drinking water contaminated by PFAS, according to a summary.

Slotkin also co-sponsored an amendment with Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico, that requires the Department of Defense to provide clean water for farmers to water crops near military installations with PFAS-contaminated ground water.

"In New Mexico there's a ton of agricultural land around the big military installations, and they keep using that same contaminated water to water their crops," Slotkin said.

"It’s the potential we have same problem with some of our local farmers around military bases."

The NDAA also includes a bipartisan bill by Slotkin and Mitchell that they say would open up Pentagon software contracts to small- and medium-sized businesses in Michigan and elsewhere by altering the way the DOD acquires such software.