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Michigan’s Dingell and Upton revive effort to set federal PFAS standards

PFAS warning sign
There are 162 known PFAS contamination sites in Michigan. In places where the U.S. military caused pollution, military officials have so far rejected community pleas to comply with Michigan’s PFAS cleanup standards. (Photo by J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue)

After a bipartisan coalition failed last year to pass a wide-ranging bill to set nationwide PFAS drinking water standards, a group led by Michigan legislators is trying again.

On Tuesday, Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, announced they had introduced the PFAS Action Act, which Dingell called “landmark and comprehensive legislation” to address contamination from the so-called “forever chemicals.”

The bill would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency two years to set drinking water standards for two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. 

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The EPA would have one year to designate the compounds as hazardous, a move that would tee up the process to clean contaminated sites across the country, and five years to decide whether other compounds should join the hazardous substances list.

The bill would also limit industrial discharges of PFAS, set up a grant program to help water utilities treat tainted water, and take a host of other actions to address existing PFAS contamination and prevent new contamination.

It is near-identical to one Dingell introduced last year with more than 60 co-sponsors that passed through the House in January 2020 before dying in the Senate.

“PFAS is an urgent public health and environmental threat,” Dingell said during a virtual media event Tuesday. “It has been that way for a long time.”

The chemicals are found in a dizzying number of products, from nonstick pans to fabric stain protectants and fire fighting foams. PFAS exposure has been linked to cancer, fertility and thyroid issues, as well as a host of other health conditions.

Michigan has 162 known PFAS contamination sites, many from old industrial sites such as the Wolverine World Wide shoe tannery in Kent County and the area near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda Township.

The federal government has been slow to follow through on promises to address contamination and set enforceable drinking water and cleanup standards. 

An unenforceable federal health advisory for PFAS warns against drinking water exceeding 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, two of the thousands of PFAS compounds. 

Michigan last year established its own drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds, giving the state authority to require water treatment and contaminated site cleanups. But in states without standards, water providers have no obligation to keep contamination levels below a certain threshold.

“This is a national crisis,” Dingell said, and “we need to do something at the federal level.”

Dingell and Upton are among five Michigan legislators on a congressional PFAS Task Force dedicated to addressing the PFASA crisis. They were joined Tuesday by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, who starred in the movie about a company knowingly discharging PFAS in West Virginia.

The EPA announced on former President Trump’s last day in office in January that it would work to develop a drinking water standard for PFOS and PFOA.

President Joe Biden promised during his campaign to designate PFAS as hazardous and set drinking water limits. 

But without congressional intervention,  it could be almost four years before EPA sets a drinking water standard, and even longer before the agency begins enforcing it, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to reduce everyday toxins.

“It’s time for action,” he said, and the bill’s deadlines would avoid further delay.

Upton, who represents the contaminated town of Parchment in Kalamazoo County, said he has seen “firsthand” the damage PFAS can inflict on a community. 

He described a massive door-knocking effort to alert residents that their water was poisoned when Parchment’s contamination came to light in 2018.

Upton noted that a divided Congress has made it impossible to pass any “truly meaningful” federal PFAS legislation in recent years. 

But the Senate is now narrowly controlled by Democrats, and lawmakers are becoming more aware of the problem, Dingell said, making her “hopeful things will be different” this time around.

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