Senators decry administration’s ‘lack of urgency’ on toxic chemicals

By: - March 28, 2019 11:44 pm

The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has failed to act swiftly enough to protect the public from harmful contaminants present in drinking water throughout the country, U.S. senators told senior administration officials Thursday.

Democrats and Republicans alike expressed frustration over the federal government’s response to the widespread drinking water contamination by chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the issue.

The man-made chemicals — used in everything from fire-fighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are found on military bases and in other U.S. communities. They have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems, and environmental and public health advocates want faster cleanup and strict guidelines for allowable limits in drinking water.

“Far too many communities worry about the quality of their drinking water in this country,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said at the hearing, where officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense testified about the federal response to the health risks associated with the chemicals.

EPA and DOD, Duckworth said, have “failed to understand the scope of the PFAS problem and they’ve failed to determine how to dispose of the chemical — which persists in the environment and our bodies — and regulate the chemical.”

The Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but critics say it isn’t aggressive enough, and the administration won’t commit to a timeline for regulation.

David Ross, EPA’s top water official, said the agency is committed to “proposing a regulatory determination this year” and would “move through that process as expeditiously as possible.”

But he declined to give a timeline for regulating PFAS in drinking water. “It’s a long process, to be frank,” Ross said, adding that the agency was committed to using the best science possible.

Public exposure to PFAS chemicals is “extremely widespread,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, told lawmakers. She testified that in the United States, studies have shown “virtually all individuals” — 97 percent — have “detectable” PFAS concentrations in their blood.

Exposure to the chemicals is a major concern in North Carolina, where GenX and other emerging PFAS have been found in the Cape Fear River and small ponds and lakes near the Chemours facility, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

PFAS have also been detected in rainwater and surface water in parts of the state far from Chemours: Jordan Lake in the Triangle, Lake Michie in Durham and in Wilmington. Scientists believe rain and wind can carry these compounds far from the source.

But the issue is also pervasive across the country, and senators from diverse states on Thursday stressed their concerns to administration officials.

“Addressing PFAS contamination is an urgent matter in my state, my constituents in New York, all across the country,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. “I’ve been to so many states in the last year and they have this same crucial issue.”

She added, “People are very worried, they’re angry and they desperately want leadership out of this committee and out of this country.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) criticized what he perceives as a “lack of urgency” from the EPA when it comes to addressing the issue. He noted that the Trump administration acted quickly to roll back Obama administration environmental regulations on clean water and climate change.

But when it comes to “access to clean drinking water, we’re told that EPA can’t even begin to guess when even a single step to protect Americans is finalized.” If the administration won’t act, Carper said, “I think that Congress needs to.”

West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said she was working with Gillibrand and Carper to draft legislation to address the contamination.

“I am concerned that we’re falling slightly short here,” Capito said of the federal response. “If this was the water that your children and grandchildren were drinking, what would be the emerging level of concern, rather than having it occur somewhere else?”

Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen pointed to military sites in their state where PFAS contamination has been detected. Those include the White Oak Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Detachment, Fort Meade, the Naval Research Laboratory Chesapeake Bay Detachment and the Naval Academy.

Cardin called for the government to strive to “prevent further contamination where we can,” but also to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for paying for cleanup.

Van Hollen also noted concerns about NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va., a popular tourist destination where PFAS contaminants were detected.

“We’ve had concerns raised by federal employees who work there,” Van Hollen said. The chemicals  turned up in drinking water wells that supply the town of Chincoteague. NASA used firefighting foam containing PFAS at Wallops, the Associated Press reported. The agency said last summer that the water there had been PFAS-free for more than a year. High levels of the contaminants were discovered in 2017 in well water near a Naval landing field in Chesapeake, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

Ross told Van Hollen Thursday that EPA’s regional staff was working with Virginia and the local community to evaluate the contamination and provide technical assistance.


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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.