Meanwhile, PFAS continue to contaminate drinking water, food, and everyday household products. After years of waiting for a sluggish Environmental Protection Agency, a growing coalition in Congress is eager to see regulatory action on PFAS and they’re working to use the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to do just that.
The chemicals are used in firefighting foams, food packaging, nonstick coating, and other products. The contaminants are known as “forever chemicals” because they are persistent in the environment as well as the bodies of humans and animals.
PFAS contaminate the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. They’ve been detected all over the country according to the Environmental Working Group. Adverse health effects caused by PFAS include lower infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption.
Although the EPA released a PFAS action plan back in February, the agency isn’t moving fast enough for an increasingly frustrated Congress. Instead of waiting for the EPA, both the House and Senate added amendments to the NDAA which would require regulatory action.
Former EPA Administrator Betsy Southerland told The Globe Post the EPA is currently working with the smallest staff it’s had in decades. Because the EPA has an especially finite amount of time and resources, the current emphasis on deregulation is straining the agency’s ability to devote any of those resources to new regulations on PFAS.
“This administration has been unprecedented in the speed and number of regulation repeals that they’re doing,” Southerland said.
“The Senate thought they needed to take that action plan and turn it into mandates because … both Republicans and Democrats seem to feel that without a statutory requirement that [the EPA] take action on these new protections, they’ll spend all their resources just killing previous protections.”
The NDAA is a federal law Congress must pass each year which outlines the budget and expenditures of the U.S. Defense Department and regularly passes through both chambers of Congress with little opposition and strong bipartisan support. The deadline to pass the 2020 NDAA is November 21.
House and Senate leaders are currently attempting to reconcile the different versions of the bill that each chamber passed during the summer.
The Senate easily passed its version of the bill with the support of 86 senators, but in the House, the vote was split along party lines without a single Republican voting in favor.
The 2020 NDAA has been somewhat more contentious than other years, largely because of disputes around border wall funding. Still, both versions that were ultimately passed in both chambers include provisions to regulate PFAS.
Scott Faber, the vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told The Globe Post there are three “buckets” in which the NDAA PFAS regulatory provisions fall. The first bucket, he said, is recording and monitoring PFAS.
“The Senate bill would require companies [like industrial polluters] that discharge PFAS, to report those discharges to the EPA through something called the Toxics Release Inventory,” Faber said.
“The Senate bill also has a requirement that drinking water utilities monitor for PFAS in drinking water and then both bills have provisions that would add PFAS to… the U.S. Geological Survey which has a groundwater monitoring network.”
The second bucket, Faber explained would be provisions to reduce ongoing releases of PFAS including things like ending the Military’s use of PFAS laden firefighting foams and a provision in the House version of the NDAA which would end the military’s use of PFAS in military food packaging.
Another provision in the House bill would put limits on industrial discharge of PFAS into river water.
The third bucket would be provisions to clean up what Faber calls “legacy pollution.”
“The House bill has a provision that would require the Defense Department and other big places that have really big legacy pollution problems to clean up that legacy pollution under the Superfund law,” Faber said. “The Senate bill has a provision that would require the EPA to set up a national drinking water standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
A national standard is significant because only a few states currently have drinking water standards for PFAS. The Senate NDAA provision would require the EPA to set a national standard within two years.
PFAS regulation gained another boost in the House earlier this month when a group of nearly 70 House lawmakers signed a letter to the conference committee threatening to vote against the NDAA unless it includes provisions to designate PFAS as hazardous substances and regulate PFAS discharges under the Clean Water Act.
Because the NDAA only passed narrowly in the House, the 70 lawmakers who signed the bill are more than enough to prevent it from passing again, should the conference committee strip the NDAA of provisions to regulate PFAS.
“In light of that letter, it’s hard to see how Congress can pass an NDAA that fails to address ongoing and legacy sources of PFAS pollution,” Faber said. “Presumably the letter will have a big impact on these final negotiations.”
Still, it’s far from a guarantee that the push in Congress to regulate PFAS will ultimately be successful. Even if the NDAA passes with such provisions included, it’s still not clear whether President Donald Trump will ultimately sign the bill. In July, the president threatened to veto the NDAA if it included measures to regulate PFAS, citing “potentially great cost” to the Department of Defense.