The House voted Jan. 10 to press the EPA to address a family of persistent chemicals contaminating drinking water supplies in towns throughout the U.S, but the legislation faces a highly uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate.
The wide-ranging bill, H.R. 535, faces strenuous opposition from Republican senators and the White House who consider it an overreach. House Democrats pushed the legislation through with a handful of Republican supporters, The House bill passed on a 247-159 vote.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a family of thousands of man-made chemicals often used in nonstick and waterproof consumer goods. The House bill, if signed into law, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to add two of the chemicals—PFOA and PFOS—to the list of hazardous substances under Superfund law, among a range of other provisions.
The Superfund designation could help states get federal assistance with contamination cleanup, but water utility associations said in a joint statement Jan. 9 that it could leave them with financial liabilities for contaminants someone else created. In 2019, the EPA indicated it would make the Superfund designation for PFOA and PFOS, but has not yet done so.
The bill also directs the EPA to create standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water within two years. That section of the bill would also set a deadline for EPA to consider regulating additional PFAS or classes of PFAS in drinking water.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Jan. 7 the House bill has “no prospects” in the Senate. The White House said that same day it would recommend a veto of the bill.
The bill “would supersede existing statutory requirements” that already require the EPA to weigh exposure data and other scientific information and set “unreasonable” timelines for regulating, the White House Office of Management and Budget said.
“We’re open to the interests the Senate might bring to the table,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said in a conference call with reporters Jan. 9.
Wrapping In Other Bills
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced H.R. 535 last January. At that time, the bill only would have required the EPA to declare PFAS hazardous substances under Superfund law, giving the agency a year to do so. After a House Energy and Commerce Committee review, 11 other pieces of legislation were wrapped into the bill.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that H.R. 535 would increase the deficit by more than $320 million over the next decade. The CBO also said the measure would impose more than $246 million in unfunded mandates on state and local governments and on the private sector.
The House pushed for significant PFAS provisions in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill, but many of the provisions were weakened or dropped in negotiations with the Senate weeks before Trump signed the measure Dec. 20.
But the defense bill did include some PFAS measures, including barring the use of firefighting foam at military installations after Oct. 1, 2024, with an exception for ships.
Environmentally persistent PFAS are driving local and state governments to write new guidelines and regulations limiting the public’s exposure.
PFAS can cause adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancers, liver tissue damage, immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the EPA.