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AGs urge Congress to keep tough PFAS language in defense bill

PFAS foam gathers along a beach shoreline along Van Etten Lake on June 7, 2018 near Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Mich.

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By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: October 5, 2020

LANSING, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Congressional leaders should advance legislation that would force the U.S. Department of Defense to comply with state laws regulating toxic “forever chemicals,” attorneys general in 18 states urged.

In an Oct. 5 letter to lawmakers, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel pushed for legislation that would, among other things, force the military to adhere to new state standards for PFAS contamination during pollution cleanups.

The language is included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was passed by the Democrat-controlled House in July. The bill, which contains hundreds of military budget and policy provisions, must be combined with a Senate version in a conference committee that’s sending a final version to the White House this year.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, authored the provision, which activists in Michigan have characterized as the “most important” PFAS legislation pending in Congress.

Michigan has struggled to get the U.S. Air Force to commit to cleaning up PFAS pollution to tougher state-required levels at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.

“Congress has the authority to further protect our citizens from these forever chemicals, and our leaders in Washington need to hold the Department of Defense’s feet to the fire to prevent contamination of our water by PFAS,” Nessel said.

The letter was sent to House and Senate armed services committee chairs and ranking members. It follows a similar push from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who wrote Air Force leaders in September to urge compliance with state rules passed in July that substantially lower cleanup thresholds for two compounds in groundwater.

In Michigan, compliance with new rules would entail cleaning up the individual compound PFOA in groundwater to 8 parts-per-trillion (ppt) and the compound PFOS to 16-ppt.

The new standards are lower than a federal advisory level the military is using as a site remediation threshold around the country. The Air Force has thus far only committed to evaluating whether to comply with Michigan’s lower PFAS standards at future steps in a long remediation process.

Slotkin’s press staff said the annual NDAA conference hasn’t yet begun, but that the congresswoman, who formerly worked as an intelligence official in the Pentagon, has been working to keep the PFAS language included in the final version.

Slotkin and 70 House members sent a similar letter in September to armed service committee leaders urging inclusion of numerous PFAS-related provisions in the 2021 NDAA; including, among other things, an expansion of blood-testing for service members, an increase in funding for health study and remediation efforts, prompt publication of environmental testing results and a prohibition on purchase of non-essential goods made with PFAS.

Slotkin has applied to be on the conference committee. The roster has yet to be announced. Last month, Politico reported that Republican leaders weren’t planning to iron out differences in the bill versions until after the election.

“Attorney General Nessel’s support for those provisions shows how important they would be for addressing PFAS contamination in our state,” said Hannah Lindrow, communications director for Rep. Slotkin, who is up for reelection next month to a second term.

The attorneys general letter also pushed for the designation of several PFAS compounds as hazardous substances, which would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to order cleanups under federal Superfund law.

The hazardous designation was spiked from NDAA negotiations last year after Republicans objected to potential liability it might create for municipal wastewater operations. Attempts to attach it to the current bill failed this summer.

Democrat state attorneys general for Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin signed Nessel’s letter. Attorneys general for Guam and the District of Columbia also signed.

©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.
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Impassioned residents rally outside of Robert J. Parks Library, protesting for clean water before a Restoration Advisory Board meeting on June 6, 2018 in Oscoda, Mich.. They wanted the Air Force to claim responsibility for damages after findings of high levels of the toxic chemical PFOS in the foam near a plume coming from the former nuclear bomber base.
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