Congress

Dropped from NDAA, 'forever chemicals' fight to linger into 2020

Getting the EPA to regulate the chemicals could emerge as an issue in next year's elections

Kildee spoke at a Fight Forever Chemicals Campaign kick off event on Capitol Hill on Nov. 19ember 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

House and Senate negotiators dropped from the final defense policy bill language to force the federal government to regulate so-called forever chemicals, pushing into 2020 a partisan debate over how to regulate the toxic legacy of products such as Teflon and fire-resistant clothing.

In a bipartisan summary released Monday night, lawmakers included a provision that would ban the Pentagon from using firefighting foam made with the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS,  after Oct. 1, 2024, except aboard military ships, and would immediately prohibit its use in training exercises at military bases. 

But language that would require the EPA to regulate the chemicals under the Superfund program and the Safe Drinking Water Act was excluded. The provisions, which Democrats and some Republicans supported, were in the House-passed version of the bill (HR 2500). 

After the conference version was released, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he would bring Democrats’ standalone bill addressing the chemicals (HR 535) up for a January floor vote. 

“These chemicals are endangering communities across the country, and House Democrats will continue to make this issue a priority in the New Year, until all Americans are protected,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Tuesday.

Democrats attached measures to address PFAS to the must-pass fiscal 2020 defense bill with the hope that they would be difficult to dislodge. 

Health problems

The chemicals, found in a swath of household and consumer goods, like clothing, cooking pans, packaging, furniture, carpets and snack bags, have been linked to health problems, including cancer and liver damage.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, excluded Democrats’ key PFAS provision — to label them as hazardous substances under the Superfund law — in NDAA negotiations. And passing a standalone PFAS bill through the Senate, rather than pushing it through Congress on a sprawling defense bill, will be difficult.

Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., would not say whether he plans to introduce separate PFAS legislation, but said there are “conversations” going on in the House, where many lawmakers are “very unhappy” with the Senate’s exclusion of PFAS legislation in the NDAA.

He said he would like to see what those conversations yield before he takes any action. Still he said a combination of the environmental legislation left out of the NDAA bill would make a “great, robust” bill.

The PFAS substances, which linger in the water table, prompting the “forever chemicals” title, have been detected in every state and at nearly 300 domestic military bases, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that maintains a tally. 

2020 races

The task of cleaning up these chemicals is expected to emerge as an issue in key 2020 Senate races in battleground states, including Michigan, where Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is up for reelection, and Colorado and North Carolina, where Republicans are defending seats and PFAS has been found at multiple civilian and military sites.

Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., will likely face tough reelection campaigns in 2020.

Some left-leaning Democrats are expected to vote against the NDAA, in part over the exclusion of PFAS cleanup language.

“I did not support the NDAA in July and I will not support it now,” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said Monday night, referencing when the bill was marked up in committee. Part of his stance was due to the exclusion of PFAS language, he said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and 68 other House Democrats vowed in October to vote against the NDAA unless it included “meaningful” PFAS elements.

Jacob Holzman and Elvina Nawaguna contributed to this report.

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