U.S. drinking water is safe from the “forever chemicals” known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told lawmakers Thursday.
“I want to assure the American people that we are protecting them today,” Wheeler told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.
He pointed to 12 enforcement actions the Environmental Protection Agency has taken on PFAS, and its assistance to state and local governments on more than two dozen other enforcement actions.
“I don’t want the American public to be concerned that their drinking water is not safe,” Wheeler said.
The agency said Wednesday it is involved in multiple PFAS-related criminal investigations. 3M Co., which manufactured PFAS, is the target of at least one such investigation.
Wheeler also told the subcommittee that the EPA is doing “innovative” geographic mapping, identifying facilities that produce and use PFAS, laying that data over water tables, and notifying communities that may have to test their water.
That didn’t mollify Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who asked Wheeler when she could expect a final drinking water standard for the potentially toxic chemicals. Some states have sought to establish their own standards.
“We have a crisis in this country,” she said. “Water is polluted, is poisoned in many communities that don’t know it.”
Earlier this month, the EPA said it will eventually set legal limits for levels of two key PFAS chemicals in drinking water. That finding is the last step before the agency proposes limits on the releases of the chemicals in drinking water and groundwater supplies, but the new limits could still be months away.
Also during the hearing, Wheeler defended the Trump administration’s proposal to slash the agency’s budget by 26.5%, telling House lawmakers that the funding is enough for the agency to address ongoing needs.
The EPA’s fiscal 2020 budget calls for $6.6 billion and some 12,600 employees. Both numbers are sharply down from the previous year.
Wheeler said the EPA issued 18 deregulatory actions in fiscal 2019. In a tweet sent during the hearing, the EPA said those actions have saved Americans some $6.5 billion in regulatory costs. An additional 45 deregulatory actions in progress are expected to save billions more, Wheeler said.
But he also stressed that the EPA is “not achieving this at the expense of implementing and enforcing the environmental laws enacted by Congress.”
Republicans on the panel applauded Wheeler’s efforts. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said the EPA has improved air and water quality, and hailed the agency’s 2019 proposed rule that would limit states’ rights to consider the water quality impacts of federal projects, such as interstate gas pipelines, under the Clean Water Act.
States like New York have “weaponized” the certification process to deny projects like pipelines, hydropower projects, and export terminals “for ideological and political reasons that have nothing to do with water quality,” Duncan said.
Climate Change, Appeals Board
At one point during the hearing, Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) asked Wheeler what he is willing to commit to that would help fight climate change. Wheeler pointed to the Affordable Clean Energy rule of 2019, which he said would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 35%.
Later, Wheeler came under heavy fire from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) about the EPA’s bid to speed up permit disputes before its Environmental Appeals Board. The EPA wants to accelerate appeals that go before the agency, according to a proposed rule published Dec. 3.
The proposed changes align with the Trump administration’s effort to speed up environmental permitting, which the administration says will boost economic growth. Under the new protocol, political officials from the EPA could make binding decisions on issues pending before the in-house appeals board.
DeGette repeatedly asked Wheeler if he would make EAB judges and career staff available to meet with lawmakers to provide information about the proposal.
Wheeler said he was “not sure that’s appropriate at this point,” because they’re “not part of the review.” That prompted DeGette to grill him about why not. Wheeler committed only to providing relevant information about the EAB overhaul.