The PFAS Action Act Falls Short of Protecting Public Health

HR 535 seeks hazardous designation for only 2 out of 6,000-plus compounds in this toxic group of chemicals; provides inadequate funding for remediation.

The Democratic leadership in the House and the nation’s leading environmental organizations have praised the PFAS Action Act, although the measure is a disaster for public health and the environment on several fronts. The bill passed the House of Representatives on January 10 with a 247-159 vote, with 223 Democrats and 24 Republicans voting for the measure.

photo of man drinking water
For over half a century, the Department of Defense (DOD) has used the carcinogens in firefighting foams during routine training exercises on military bases. Photo by US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Dennis Sloan.

Overwhelmingly positive media coverage of the legislation has focused on the long-overdue provision that would require the US Environmental Protection Agency to designate two chemical compounds, PFOS and PFOA, as hazardous substances under the Superfund program. Such a designation would force the Pentagon to foot the bill for cleaning up hundreds of contaminated military bases and surrounding communities in the United States. The “hazardous substances” designation for these compounds was stripped from the annual, must-pass National Defense Authorization Act in December by Senate Republicans.

For over half a century, the Department of Defense (DOD) has used the carcinogens in firefighting foams during routine training exercises on military bases. The substances work well in extinguishing petroleum-based fires, the kind that might engulf a $100 million F-35 fighter jet. But the cancer-causing agents have been allowed to seep into the ground to poison ground water, surface water, and drinking water. The groundwater plumes spread for miles.

The bill is now in the hands of Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, protects the interests of the DOD and the chemical industry in Congress, so he is opposed to designating the human carcinogens as hazardous substances. Barrasso is in no hurry to push the legislation and it has disappeared from public attention.

If Chairman Barrasso doesn’t want a specific provision to pass, it’s very likely it will not. If the DOD and the chemical industry don’t want a specific provision to pass, it’s very likely it will not. Meanwhile, President Trump says he’ll veto the bill passed by the House because it would open the federal government up to “considerable litigation.”

We’re witnessing the best democracy money can buy.

Sen. Barrasso is the top recipient of cash from the chemical industry in the Senate and he says the measure “has no prospects in the Senate.” The powerful chairman is “negotiating” from a position of strength as the Senate undertakes the measure, which has been seriously pared down by the Democratic-controlled House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, and the bill’s lead sponsor Debbie Dingell are all pleased with the work they’ve done, although the bill does more to keep the military and corporate entities shielded from liability than it does to protect public health.

HR 535 only designates PFOS and PFOA as hazardous chemicals — while much of the scientific community regards all the compound in the PFAS group, that add up to more than 6,000, a threat to public health.

HR 535 directs the EPA to test all varieties of PFAS, but how long will it take for this snail-paced institution under the control of industry insider Andrew Wheeler to get through the paperwork? Rather than starting with the premise that all PFAS substances are potentially fatal and should be immediately banned until each one is proven by a ton of science to be okay for, say, water-guzzling pregnant women, Congress is going about it the other way around. That is to say that all PFAS are okay until we start looking at all 6,000 of them — one at a time — and we’ll let you know if we determine if one is a baddie and should be designated as a hazardous substance under the Superfund law. This is precisely what the chemical industry is paying Congress to do.

PFOS and PFOA are eight-carbon chain varieties of per-and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been phased out of production. They’re no longer used. But since these compounds don’t biodegrade, they persist in the environment. In the meantime, they’ve been replaced by six-carbon chain varieties of PFAS that equally harmful.

We must limit all PFAS to 1 ppt in drinking water.

pfas molecule model
Eight fluorinated carbon atoms — the strongest bond ever developed. Pandora couldn’t close her box, and neither can we. Model illustration by Manuel Almagro Rivas/Wikimedia Commons.

Until last year, Congress required airports to use fire-fighting foams containing carcinogenic PFAS. Meanwhile, hundreds of governments and airports around the world had already received and acted on the memo regarding the destructive impact of PFAS — and have switched to the just-as-effective fluorine-free foams, or 3F

Rolling back the mandatory use of the carcinogens at commercial airports

opened the debate over the military’s insistence on the continued use of the chemicals in firefighting foam that contaminate groundwater.

The PFAS Action Act exempts public agencies and private owners of public airports that receive federal funding from liability for remediation of certain releases of PFAS’ into the environment resulting from the use of aqueous film forming foam.

At the same time, the Trump administration has been claiming “sovereign immunity” in US District Court cases when states sue for compensation for cleaning up the contamination caused by the military. Sovereign immunity, a concept that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini loved, in this instance means the US government reserves the right to poison the American people and the Japanese and the Germans and citizens of other nations where it has military bases — and there’s nothing that states or nations can do about it.

The military has floated a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 400 parts per trillion (ppt). for PFOS and PFOA in groundwater, comparable to allowing the fox to determine hen-house policy. With the EPA in the clutches of corporate managers, many states are rushing to create regulations limiting PFAS in groundwater and drinking water. Vermont, for instance has enacted regulations limiting five 5 varieties of PFAS to 20 ppt in groundwater and drinking water. Other states are following suit, although most, like Louisiana, have been slow to act.

Groundwater wells at England Air Force base in Alexandria, Louisiana were recently found to contain 10,900,000 ppt of PFOS and PFOA. Poor African American folks who live nearby drink from groundwater wells while no one is rushing to protect their health. Although the base closed down in1992, these “forever chemicals” persist.

HR 535 says no municipal water systems may be fined for violating the new drinking water regulations for five years. That’s an eternity. Meanwhile, people are dying, There are several ways these chemicals may be removed from groundwater and surface water before they are sent to consumers, although these methods expensive..

HR 535 sets up a PFAS infrastructure grant program but only provide $125 million a year for 2020 and 2021, and $100 million a year from 2022 through 2024. This may not even cover the cost of removing PFAS from California’s water supplies, if the job is done properly.

For five years, according to the PFAS Action Act, the EPA shall prohibit the manufacture, processing, and distribution of a PFAS not listed on the EPA’s inventory list or the manufacture or processing of a PFAS for a significant new use. This is a good development, yet it is akin to Pandora managing to close her box after most of the demons are let loose. This will be one part of the bill that may survive Barrasso and company.

HR 535 prohibits the “unsafe waste incineration” of PFAS, although there’s not enough science to justify burning the stuff in the first place. Incineration could seriously threaten public health. PFAS may remain carcinogenic even after being incinerated if the temperatures aren’t high enough. The Air Force admits that the foam it uses is engineered to resist super-hot temperatures and is extraordinarily difficult to burn.

Throughout the country these chemicals also accumulate in contaminated sewerage sludge that is typically spread on farm fields. Because the chemicals don’t break down, they’re able to contaminate the food chain. Incineration is one way to avoid contaminating food. What to do? It’s a Catch 22.

The PFAS Action Act directs the EPA to offer guidance on minimizing the use of non-military firefighting foams using PFAS chemicals, but it contains no reference to 3F foams used worldwide. Just how are these decisions rendered? HR 535 should be calling for the immediate and universal phasing out of all military and commercial firefighting foams containing PFAS, in favor of the environmentally responsible 3F foams.

HR 535 directs the EPA to set up an instructional website on how to test for PFAS in privately owned wells but provides no funding for grants to do so.

The EPA does not regulate private drinking water wells and most states and towns do not require sampling of private wells after installation. In America, it is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain the safety of their water and that’s just fine with Congress.

Licensed PFAS testing costs about $400 per test, enough to preclude most people from considering it. This is reprehensible public policy. The military and corporate powers behind this legislation were the one who put the chemicals in the ground in the first place, and they would prefer to allow millions of Americans to continue drinking poisonous well water than to have an honest discussion on liability and how we can work together to protect public health.

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