Congress Told Budget for Cleanup Of Toxic Chemical is Inadequate

March 7, 2019 by Tom Ramstack
Andrew Wheeler at an EPA press conference last week announcing a nationwide plan to address PFAS in drinking water. PFAS water contamination has affected thousands in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress expressed frustration Wednesday at the years and billions of dollars needed to clean up a class of toxic chemicals polluting some of the nation’s drinking water.

The House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on the environment held the hearing to examine the extent of the problem and how to get rid of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that caused it.

The class of chemicals, which are also referred to by the acronym PFAS, are largely unregulated by the federal government despite their use in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. They can be found in food packaging, dental floss, clothing and furniture, as well as water resistant textiles and fire-fighting foam.

Only in the past few years has the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the toxicity of the chemicals.

The Centers for Disease Control has linked the chemicals to birth defects, liver disease and increased risk for thyroid disease and cancer. They sometimes are called “forever chemicals” because they can take centuries to break down.

Federal officials were alerted to the dangers after states and cities reported serious health problems among residents near U.S. Air Force bases.

The district of Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, includes the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda.

“Despite the Defense Department knowing about this PFAS chemical contamination at Wurtsmith since 2012, the military has failed to act quickly enough to stop contamination coming from the former Air Force base,” Kildee told the congressional committee. “As a result, PFAS continues to leech into the ground and surface water in Oscoda.”

Kildee said Wurtsmith Air Force base is one of 401 military sites where PFAS are likely to be found. PFAS were mixed into a firefighting foam to extinguish jet fuel fires.

“The Defense Department has only acted at 32 of those to clean-up contamination—less than 10 percent of all identified sites,” Kildee said. “Clearly, more needs to be done.”

The EPA reports that the chemicals can drain into watersheds and reservoirs used for drinking water. Some communities near military bases have tried to filter their water but the costs remain high. At the same time, the chemical remains in the groundwater and soil.

The chemical is suspected to have crept into the drinking water of as many as 10 million Americans, according to government estimates.

The cleanup will take much bigger budgets than anything envisioned now by the government, the congressional witnesses said.

“The cleanup of PFAS … right now is going to add approximately $2 billion to our existing liability of $27 billion,” said Maureen Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment, during the congressional hearing.

Her budget for chemical cleanup this year is slightly over $1 billion.

Rep. Harley Rouda, a California Democrat, said the Defense Department had “woefully inadequate funding” for the cleanup.

“There’s no indication of when the process might actually be complete,” Rouda said.

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