Chemical Lobby and Health Advocates Square Off on Six PFAS-Related Bills in the US Senate

US Senator John Barrasso is enabling extremely hazardous PFAS chemicals for military use
Senator John Barrasso, Pentagon’s point man for allowing use of very hazardous PFAS chemicals in military bases near civilian populations.

By Pat Elder, May 29, 2019

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, holds tremendous power in formulating legislation regarding the regulation of deadly per and poly flouralkyl substances (PFAS). Barrasso is the Senate’s top recipient of cash from the chemical industry and has a lengthy legislative record promoting the industry’s interests.

Barrasso is also the Pentagon’s point man. He is opposed to addressing all PFAS chemicals as a class. Doing so might deprive the military of war-making technology they say is vital to their mission. PFAS is the active ingredient in fire-fighting foams used by the military during routine fire-fighting exercises on military bases. The carcinogenic foam is allowed to leach into the soil to poison groundwater and municipal sewer systems. Nothing can put out a super-hot petroleum fire like PFAS-laced foam.

 Common sense legislation calls for all 5,000+  PFAS chemicals to collectively be regulated because they are all deemed to be toxic. 

Barrasso’s stance defends the “profit over people” class of industrialists and militarists. Barrasso and the new breed of extremists with the upper hand in Washington question whether lawmakers should take such an approach because each chemical structure presents different levels and types of risks to human health and the environment. They say the science is extremely complex and requires years more of study before laws should be made – if they’re deemed necessary.

Barrasso has also expressed reservations about legislation that might “side-step the rulemaking process used to assess risks” associated with chemicals under existing environmental laws. “Congress established these rulemaking processes decades ago. It believed federal agencies are better positioned to evaluate the science behind the regulation of chemicals,” he argues. Translation: Science is scary stuff and we know some in Congress want to blow the whistle on our profit-making party at the expense of human health and the environment, so it’s better for science-absent Trump appointees to make decisions devoid of heavy scientific baggage.

Some of the legislation invokes strict Superfund penalties and regulations on polluters, something that terrifies the ruling elite. Barrasso and his army of dutiful cohorts on both sides of the aisle argue that imposing Superfund liabilities would be unfair because the government and industry have used these chemicals in good faith. This is contaminated thinking. Although they never mention the military, here’s the argument: “Our nation’s airports, refineries, and others used fire-fighting foam containing PFAS in order to protect their workers and the public at large.” Barrasso typically uses past tense verbs to describe the ongoing contamination.

Chairman Barrasso’s talking points include two more whoppers. He says that “metal finishers” (translation: F-35’s, etc.)  use PFAS “to lower air emissions and workers’ exposure to heavy metals.” Defending the military’s practice of  contaminating neighboring communities, Barrasso says, “Wastewater treatment plants and landfills were unknowing recipients of the chemicals” so they should not be burdened by new regulations.” 

Barrasso, of course, is leaving out the violent vomiting and blood-soaked diarrhea deaths being suffered by folks in, say, Colorado Springs near Peterson Air Force Base who have been drinking PFAS-poisoned water for 20 years. It’s an inconvenient truth.

Here’s a rundown on the pending legislation in the Senate:

S. 638 would require the EPA to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. (CERCLA-Superfund). CERCLA is one of the nation’s most brilliant pieces of legislation because it strongly subjects corporate and military interests to scientifically based environmental and human health considerations.

S. 638 would be an excellent development because it would create a maximum contaminant level for PFAS which would then kick in mandatory measures, including steep fines for non-compliance. None of that currently exists! 3M, Chemours, and DuPont are vehemently opposed because it’ll devastate their bottom line.  

This bill may still allow for the military to claim, “sovereign immunity” and sidestep all new regulations. This is a pertinent question for constitutional law professors like Rep. Jamie Raskin, (D-MD-8), although the military seems to be winning with this line so far in its defense in suits against multiple states.

S. 1507 – A bill to include certain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the Toxics Release Inventory, and for other purposes.

There’s still no text for this bill, although it would would add nearly 200 PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory, according to Inside EPA. The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is a resource for learning about toxic chemical releases and pollution prevention activities reported by industrial and federal facilities. This is a common-sense step in the right direction although it fails to add all 5,000+ harmful PFAS chemicals to the inventory.  If passed, it should also include a measure to streamline the addition of other PFAS chemicals.

Readers must understand that something very nasty occurs when chemists construct amazingly powerful chains of carbon atoms surrounded by fluorine atoms with various endings. The chemicals repel grease and dirt and fire better than anything. Even though they never break down in nature and they poison living organisms forever, they benefit war-making preparations.

S 1473 – A bill to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to set maximum contaminant levels for certain chemicals, and for other purposes.

There’s still no text for this bill, either. 

This is another much-needed, common sense measure. It would require the EPA to set a national, enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS two years after enacted. At this point, with the EPA on the sidelines, there is no federal oversight for this class of chemicals.

Several states, recognizing the vacuum at the federal level, have established their own maximum contaminant levels. New Jersey, for instance, has set an MCL of 20 ppt. for PFAS in both groundwater and drinking water. Groundwater is often used for drinking water in New Jersey and across the country.

To drive home the point of a national epidemic of biblical proportions, Alexandria. Louisiana, near England Air Force Base (which closed 28 years ago) still has 10,900,000 ppt of PFAS in its groundwater and there are folks living close to that base with wells.

One worry with S 1473 is that MCL’s might be established at too high a level to safeguard human health. After all, Harvard public health scientists say 1 ppt of PFAS in drinking water is potentially dangerous.

 S 1251  – A bill to improve and coordinate interagency federal actions and provide assistance to states for responding to public health challenges posed by emerging contaminants, and for other purposes.

Gathering data to address contaminants awaiting decisions by the EPA Administrator takes many years and obtaining data on other contaminants that are currently awaiting regulatory determinations may take a generation. This common-sense measure would bolster interagency federal actions and assist states in responding to public health crises.

S. 950 – To require the Director of the United States Geological Survey to perform a nationwide survey of perfluorinated compounds, and for other purposes.

This one makes sense, too. It recognizes that the country faces a health threat like none other in its history.

S 1372 – To encourage federal agencies to expeditiously enter into or amend cooperative agreements with states for removal and remedial actions to address PFAS contamination in drinking, surface, and ground water and land surface and subsurface strata, and for other purposes.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s bill would hold the Pentagon responsible for cleaning up the PFAS contamination they’ve caused.  Under the act, the term “federal facility” refers to a site under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Defense. 

Here’s the text:

(1) IN GENERAL.—On request by the Governor or chief executive of a State, a Federal department or agency shall work expeditiously to finalize a cooperative agreement for, or to amend an existing cooperative agreement to address, testing, monitoring, removal, and remedial actions to address contamination or suspected contamination of drinking water, surface water, or groundwater or land surface or subsurface strata from a perfluorinated compound originating from a Federal facility.

(2) MINIMUM STANDARDS. —A cooperative agreement finalized or amended under paragraph (1) shall require the area subject to the cooperative agreement to meet or exceed the most stringent of the following standards for perfluorinated compounds in any environmental media:

(A) An enforceable State standard, in effect in that State, for drinking water, surface water, or groundwater or land surface or subsurface strata, as required under section 121(d) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (42 U.S.C. 9621(d)).

(B) A health advisory under section 1412(b)(1)(F) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300g–1(b)(1)(F)).

(C) Any Federal standard, requirement, criterion, or limit, including a standard, requirement, criterion, or limit issued under—

(i) the Toxic Substances Control Act (15 U.S.C. 2601 et seq.);

(ii) the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300f et seq.);

(iii) the Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq.);

(iv) the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.);

(v) the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (commonly known as the “Ocean Dumping Act”) (33 U.S.C. 1401 et seq.); or

(vi) the Solid Waste Disposal Act (42 U.S.C. 6901 et seq.).

Now, that’s a lot to take in – but it holds the Pentagon’s feet to the fire-fighting foam.  It would mean, among other things, that the DOD would have to abide by New Mexico or Michigan law, rather than flashing the middle “sovereign” finger. The proposed legislation may require tens of billions of federal dollars – and perhaps more.  It’s time to pony up. We must protect vulnerable human health.

Peace, social justice, health, and environmental activists should take note. S 1372 is among the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in the nation’s history. Hundreds of military bases in the U.S. and around the world continue to contaminate military personnel and adjacent communities.

Although Thirteen PFAS-related bills  have recently been introduced in the House, it is the Senate that holds the cards, and John Barrasso is the gatekeeper.

The House measures invoke a wide range of regulations, including a ban on incinerating the chemicals, which is, thus far, not included in the bills being considered by the Senate. Despite the horrendous health implications, the military continues to incinerate the toxins because it is the easiest and least expensive way to dispose of PFAS. Community water authorities have felt compelled to burn PFAS-laced sewer sludge because it is poisoning the soil, groundwater, and surface water where it is spread on farm fields.

One House bill would provide federal dollars to cash-strapped municipal water systems that can’t protect human health from the carcinogenic onslaught. Another would impose fees on PFAS manufacturers to pay for the exorbitant cost faced by water officials across the country. Still, another bill would establish a voluntary system that cookware is labeled “PFAS-safe.” Obviously, the bill doesn’t go far enough. Congress must ban the stuff outright!  

An important bill would minimize the use of the carcinogenic foam by municipal firefighters. Cancer rates among this subset in society are among the highest in the nation.

So, why isn’t the EPA doing its job? 

The answer is that the fox is guarding the henhouse. See who are the major players in the EPA:

  • Administrator Andrew Wheeler was an energy lobbyist for most of his career.
  • Erik Baptist is a chemical safety appointee who came from the American Petroleum Institute.
  • Peter Wright, a Dow Chemical lawyer, now runs the Superfund cleanup program
  • David Dunlap, a deputy in EPA’s research office, was a Koch Industries official.
  • Steven Cook, the head of EPA’s Superfund task force, was chief counsel for the plastics and chemical goliath Lyondell Basell Industries.

Trump’s nominee to run the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Michael Dourson, withdrew from consideration after it became well established that he spent most of his career defending the criminals who poison us, while attempting to destroy the EPA. Dourson operated a research foundation funded by DuPont, Monsanto and the American Chemistry Council.  He sold his pseudo-science to the highest bidder. Barrasso referred to Dourson as a “well-qualified, experienced, and dedicated public servant.”  Barrasso’s committee approved Dourson’s appointment before a firestorm of controversy ended Dourson’s bid.


Pat Elder serves on the Board of Directors of World BEYOND War. 

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