By Peter Chawaga
Though the federal government has included some provisions for mitigating the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in U.S. drinking water through the latest iteration of its annual defense bill, the legislation does not go as far as it once might have.
In June 2019, there was reason to believe that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would direct the U.S. EPA to issue final drinking water regulations for two major PFAS, thus compelling water utilities to ensure PFAS levels were below certain thresholds. If this had come to fruition, it would have been a much more significant deterrent to PFAS contamination than the current health advisories that the EPA maintains.
But, despite reports that such a provision would be included, the final language of the bill only includes relatively minor measures to address PFAS in water supplies.
“Environmental groups and some members of Congress were howling … after some provisions to respond to the threat of PFAS chemical contamination … were stripped from a defense authorization bill,” the Detroit Free Press reported. “[Provisions taken out] included those requiring the Trump administration to set a health standard for PFAS in drinking water and require and help pay for cleanup of contaminated sites nationwide.”
The bill does still include provisions to phase out the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS by the military, a practice that has led to drinking water contamination.
“A measure pushed by [U.S. Senator Gary] Peters that the Defense Department limit its use of PFAS as a firefighting foam and phase it out altogether over the next five years was included, with the senator saying it will help ‘keep more PFAS from getting into the environment,’” per the Free Press.
While some environmental advocates may be disappointed that the bill does not go far enough to combat PFAS contamination, others have praised its restraint. For instance, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), an advocacy group of publicly owned wastewater treatment and stormwater management facilities, defended the bill.
“Importantly, the deal does not open America’s public clean water utilities to Superfund liability, which could have placed the cleanup burden on local communities and water customers rather than those who produced and profited from PFAS compounds,” according to a NACWA press release. “NACWA hopes the final NDAA will allow EPA’s efforts to assess and regulate PFAS, as outlined in its 2019 PFAS Action Plan, to advance expeditiously.”
As of this writing, the legislation was expected to pass in the near future.