Bloomberg Law
May 6, 2020, 3:48 PMUpdated: May 6, 2020, 8:49 PM

Senate Panel Moves Major Water Bills, Adding PFAS Actions (2)

Dean Scott
Dean Scott

The Senate’s environment panel pushed through two major water infrastructure bills Wednesday, rejecting a GOP member’s attempt to give Western states more authority over water supplies but agreeing to direct the EPA to set drinking water limits for “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

The water packages, (S. 3591) and (S. 3590), developed by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will now go to the full Senate. It’s unclear how soon the chamber will consider the legislation while it focuses on the coronavirus pandemic.

The PFAS language would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a national drinking water standard for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals used in everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam.

The language was pushed by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was joined by committee Democrats in resurrecting the mandate for PFAS regulation. Supporters were able to get similar language attached to the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill last year, only to have it struck in final House-Senate negotiations.

The PFAS language was among several changes made to the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (S. 3590)—one of the two major water bills the committee reported Wednesday. It was incorporated in a 57-page substitute amendment to which the committee agreed.

The Senate committee’s action comes as both chambers of Congress have picked up the pace on water infrastructure legislation. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the demands for safe drinking water and more attention to hygiene, including increased hand-washing.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is gearing up to introduce its own major water bill by Memorial Day in hopes of marking it up this summer.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on Environment and Public Works, said after the markup the bills could be moved to Senate floor consideration this summer.

But the Senate schedule remains in flux in the wake of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Floor timing will depend in part on how much time GOP Senate leaders want to give senators to return home for 2020 campaigning, Carper told Bloomberg Law in an interview.

Legislative Action

Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has said the bills are crucial to addressing the pandemic, and has noted that Democrats and Republicans have typically moved water reauthorization measures to swift Senate passage.

The committee also on Wednesday by voice vote approved a substitute amendment making some additional technical changes to the drinking water infrastructure bill (S. 3590), including clarifying that the mission of the Advanced Drinking Water Technology Program authorized by the bill is to “enhance treatment, monitoring, affordability, efficiency, or safety of the drinking water.”

The committee also agreed to a 326-page substitute amendment revamping America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (S. 3591), largely making tweaks and technical changes. The committee also agreed by voice vote to an amendment by Carper and Barrasso making further modest changes to the water infrastructure bill.

Those include setting aside 10% of community resiliency and sustainability grants to be available for disadvantaged communities and those with populations under 10,000.

The committee voted down one amendment by Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) dealing with giving Western states more authority over water supplies. Members of both parties opposed Cramer’s amendment, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who said it would set a “bad precedent” by allowing upstream states to control the flow of water to downstream states.

S. 3591, the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, focuses mostly on Army Corps of Engineers projects and policy, and would authorize roughly $17 billion in infrastructure projects while increasing water storage and reducing flood risks.

It would reauthorize a 2018 water infrastructure law touted by Republicans and Democrats alike as the most sweeping infrastructure measure to be considered in the last Congress.

The Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 would reauthorize Safe Drinking Water Act programs, including infrastructure that supports and improves drinking water, and provide resources and technical assistance for communities struggling to provide clean water.

Both bills are essentially updated every two years by Congress to address flood control and clean water grants popular with states. They would reauthorize legislation on water resource development and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

More PFAS Cleanups

Carper said he and other Democrats still want to strengthen the bill to direct the EPA to consider regulating the amount of toxic PFAS that industries can release into the environment.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a committee member, has been pushing for stronger EPA regulation of PFAS across multiple bills, including the annual defense authorization bill. She has had mixed success.

The drinking water infrastructure measure proposes roughly $2.5 billion in authorizations, and $300 million in proposed grants for cleaning drinking water from emerging contaminants, particularly PFAS.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an environment committee member and a co-founder of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus that focuses on inequities in environmental protection, said the caucus helped ensure the bills boost resources “for small, rural, and disadvantaged communities that will help protect and improve their access to clean drinking water.”

Together, the two bills reported out of the environment committee would authorize a total of $18 billion in water resource development projects across the country, Duckworth and other caucus members said in a statement.

Funding levels proposed in the water infrastructure legislation “should only serve as a starting point,” Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, said in a statement.

Many provisions were drafted “prior to our current national public health crisis,” he said.

“It is my hope that both houses of Congress will take into account the heightened need and appreciation for access to clean water in protecting public health and the environment,” he said.

(Updates with Duckworth comments in 22nd paragraph. An earlier version corrected the bill number.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Rebecca Baker at