Negotiators have agreed to leave out two provisions to regulate “forever chemicals” in order to move a defense authorization bill to the finish line, drawing anger from members whose districts are most affected by the pollution.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters that House-Senate negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act have ended after an impasse over how strongly to regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water and as hazardous substances.
Smith said that the House wouldn’t compromise with Senate Republicans over two provisions—to set a drinking water standard for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), and to list any number of thousands of PFAS under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund law—in order to move the NDAA to the finish line.
“If we had accepted that compromise, we wouldn’t have gotten” the NDAA as it stands, Smith said.
Smith highlighted the gains on controlling PFAS that the NDAA offers, notably the promise that the Defense Department would reduce its use of the chemical.
Negotiators agreed on cleaning up legacy PFAS contamination on military bases, monitoring for groundwater pollution, phasing out firefighting foam containing the chemicals, and notifying communities about toxic releases.
Nearly 70 Democrats said in an October letter that they wouldn’t vote for a bill without strong language on cleaning up the chemicals, which are linked to cancer and other health problems, and plague communities around the country. But Smith dismissed the notion that those Democrats could sink the bill.
“The wisdom of saying that you’re not going to support our troops, support the national security of the country, because Republicans refused to give us something that is outside of our jurisdiction, I don’t think that’s a winning argument,” Smith said.
Nevertheless, news that the conference report, which is set to be unveiled next week, wouldn’t seek to regulate PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act or the Superfund law drew the ire of Democrats in both chambers.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee dealing with the environment. “I think it’s a lame response on an issue that, as a contaminant, bears great importance for all people.”
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), placed the blame on Republicans, whose offers he says were too weak, but also Democrats, who didn’t hold out for better provisions.
“It is appalling that Senate Republicans opposed—and some senior House Democrats did not insist on—a principled, compromise measure to begin cleanup at military sites and in communities throughout the country for just two of the most harmful legacy PFAS chemicals,” Carper said in a statement.
Carper had pushed for the Superfund designation for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most-studied PFAS chemicals that were used for decades in Teflon, firefighting foam, and other products. The offer would have been less expansive than House Democrats’ push to designate thousands of PFAS. He also hit House Democrats for removing the drinking water language, which would have directed the EPA to set standards for PFOA and PFOS.
“Congress had a key opportunity to give these hundreds of American communities the help they so desperately need and deserve. But because of behind-the-scenes, beltway politics, we are about to miss that opportunity,” Carper said.
A spokesman for Environment and Public Works Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
—With assistance from Roxana Tiron (Bloomberg Government).