Congress introduces bills to address 'forever chemicals'

By Cynthia Price

Michigan is leading the way in Congress when it comes to finding ways to alleviate the situation with PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) – also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and may even increase (or “bio-accumulate”) in the body.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents the Detroit/Ann Arbor Area, was joined by Rep. Dan Kildee, from Flint and its surroundings, and Fred Upton, from the large district that includes Kalamazoo in introducing HR 535, also known as the Dingell PFAS Action Act.?It is scheduled to come up for a vote Jan. 10, despite President Trump’s threat of a veto.

Among other regulations, the bill would require that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set official standards for the amount of PFAS chemicals that could be in drinking water.

The bill says it is intended to “require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980,” but doing so entails a lot of other actions.

Many in this area have heard of PFAS because of its member chemicals’ prevalence in the Rockford area. (It is important to remember that PFAS is a group of chemicals, whereas individual chemicals with names like PFOS, PFNA, and PFOA would be the actual chemicals regulated.) Many others around the state have heard of them because of Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda (part of Rep. Kildee’s constituency). Military bases, airports and firefighting stations used a foam that contained such substances, which is now being phased out thanks in part to the efforts of Michigan Senator Gary Peters.

“What many people don’t understand is that we don’t even have a standard for drinking water – we have a guideline. It’s not even designated a hazardous substance now,” Rep. Dingell said on a press conference call Thursday. “We want to protect our military – we’re so grateful the military isn’t using it anymore. But the lack of a hazardous designation is why they’re not making much progress getting started on cleaning it up.”

Dingell emphasized that she has worked hard on developing broad bipartisan support for the bill (indeed, Kildee is a Democrat and Upton a Republican) and in setting the stage for a similar bill’s introduction in the Senate.

“PFAS have been associated with cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and a lot else,” she said, as well as thyroid and auto-immune disorders.

“The PFAS Action Act will protect the water and the air by requiring PFAS to e listed under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts,” said Rep. Kildee. “It’s important for Congress to act because the Trump administration has not. The EPA?is even repeatedly missing their own deadlines for setting standards.”

In the meantime, Michigan’s response to PFAS contamination has been ahead of the rest of the country as well – partly because, people often speculate, the Flint drinking water crisis had people on high alert at the time attention was drawn to Rockford, Wurtsmith, Parchment (near Kalamazoo) and a few other sites.

The state began to do interdepartmental work last year, and (as reported here on occasion) conducted preliminary investigations to see how widespread the problem is.

Though there is definitely some Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl contamination near the Muskegon County Airport, the county does not have as severe a problem as the above sites.

However, in terms of exposure, it is estimated that about 95% of Americans have some PFAS substance or other in their blood.

At the same time, Michigan has undertaken to set its own standards for amounts (measured in parts per trillion) of various substances in the water.

In fact, Wednesday marked the first public hearing on the proposed Michigan standards, held in Grand Rapids. It is still not too late to comment on these standards. There are two more hearings come up, one in Ann Arbor and one in Roscommon, but you can also visit to review the rules and comment.

If the bill passes the house and the Senate, organizers said they have some hope, since the problem is so widespread in the U.S., that they might be able to draw a veto-proof number of votes. They admit it is probably a long shot.

Proponents of the bill, including Rep. Dingell, were successful in getting some provisions into the defense budget under the National Defense Authorization Act. Dingell, along with Rep. Kildee and other bill sponsors, vows that she will not give up the fight.

“Every time we see some of these candidates for president come to Michigan, they’re going to get asked these questions about PFAS,” she said.


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