Intense PFAS lobbying pits greens against water utilities

2020-06-11

An effort on Capitol Hill to regulate toxic “forever chemicals” is pitting environmental groups against drinking and wastewater utilities that are worried Congress could leave them vulnerable to future lawsuits and high cleanup costs.

House lawmakers are eager to attach language to regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Policy experts say spending bills and water infrastructure legislation are also potential vehicles in the fall.

That legislative push has triggered an increase in lobbying efforts from companies that produce PFAS — as well as utilities looking to shape government oversight of the chemicals that have contaminated drinking water, soil and air across the United States. Studies have linked PFAS with multiple health issues such as thyroid problems and some cancers.

At the heart of the dispute, utilities are either voicing opposition to a flurry of PFAS bills or asking Congress for an exemption to protect themselves from future litigation. Environmental groups are countering by dismissing those concerns while pushing for stricter oversight.

“The uptick in lobbying corresponds with the uptick in the amount of attention Congress is giving to it,” said Rik Hull, executive vice president of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), an association advocating on behalf of privately held water systems.

“We were working through the regulatory process, with EPA, and as soon as Congress gets involved, of course we’re going to start trying to educate Congress on our position,” Hull said.

Lobbying disclosures show that two entities lobbied for water utilities relating to PFAS issues in 2018. In 2019, that number more than tripled to 14 organizations.

It’s unclear how much money went specifically into lobbying for PFAS, since federal law doesn’t require firms to break down spending to that level.

Water utilities, for example, have pushed for provisions in various spending bills for funds to install filtration systems or other cleanup costs for the chemicals.

While EPA is wrapping up its comment period on whether it will craft rules for two of the most studied PFAS, lawmakers are charging ahead with attaching provisions that would require EPA to set drinking water standards. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

Lawmakers have argued for those provisions to be included in must-past measures because the agency is moving too slowly with setting standards for PFOA and PFOS.

Last month during a hearing, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told senators the agency would need more than a year to set maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS (E&E News PM, May 20).

On Capitol Hill, utility opposition centers around language that would designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, or CERCLA. That designation would initiate federal cleanup standards that water utilities would have to comply with.

The House passed H.R. 535, the “PFAS Action Act,” with bipartisan support earlier this year. It included a hazardous designation for PFOA and PFOS, along with a host of PFAS provisions (Greenwire, Jan. 10).

A coalition of drinking water and wastewater utilities has argued that bill doesn’t go far enough to distinguish water systems as the recipients — not producers — of the chemicals. Utilities already investing in PFAS treatment could face additional costs and lawsuits under the bill, they say.

Investor-owned utilities are also raising concerns with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), S. 3227, which would similarly require EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA.

An E&E News review last year showed how chemical companies and other firms with ties to PFAS have also increased their lobbying (E&E Daily, July 24, 2019). One of their top targets is a hazardous designation.

In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats have coalesced around compromise language to set a drinking water standard for PFAS, but House Democrats say it’s not strong enough. Senators have rejected a hazardous designation (E&E Daily, April 27).

The Senate Armed Services Committee finished marking up its fiscal 2021 NDAA last night but has yet to release the legislation. The House panel will mark up is version later this month.

EENews, 11 June 2020
; https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063366935