House rolls out sweeping bipartisan NDAA amendment targeting toxic chemicals on bases

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 14, 2020

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers presented an extensive amendment to the annual defense spending bill targeting harmful chemicals that have contaminated hundreds of military bases. 

The bipartisan measure, headed by Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., is designed to scale back the risks of exposure to toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” because they are not expelled from the human body once ingested. PFAS have been linked to some types of cancer and have contaminated at least 328 U.S. military installations, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization. 

“PFAS [chemicals] are poisoning our servicemembers and families and communities around military bases,” Dingell said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “These harmful chemicals are found everywhere and much of the source contamination leads back to military facilities who aren’t taking the steps to clean up PFAS contamination.” 

The amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act is identical to Dingell’s PFAS Action Act, which passed the House in January with the support of 24 Republicans. It requires the Environmental Protection Agency to list PFAS chemicals, including those found in firefighting foam that military bases use, as hazardous to get its Superfund grants for cleanup, and directs the EPA to set enforceable federal drinking water standards.

Dingel said the NDAA is a vehicle to move the chemical legislation into law, after the bill went dark in the Senate. After the PFAS Action Act passed through the Democratic-controlled House, the White House rebuked it and threatened to veto it if Senate Republicans approved it. 

“This is one of the areas we’ve really battled with the administration. ... It’s where we have strong bipartisan support. ... This is a very dangerous substance that the EPA has not done enough...The EPA is continuing to allow new PFAS onto the market,” Fitzpatrick said Tuesday. He added that the focus is not exclusively on military bases due to the chemical’s far-reaching impacts. 

The White House put out a statement saying the bill would "require the Administration to bypass well-established processes, procedures, and legal requirements of the Nation's most fundamental environmental laws," including the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. "By truncating the rulemaking process," the White House's statement said, "this legislation risks undermining public confidence in the EPA's decisions, and also risks the imposition of unnecessary costs on States, public water systems, and others responsible for complying with its prescriptive mandates."

Toxic PFAS chemicals have been found in firefighting foam, which the military has used for decades. The foam has been found to contaminate groundwater and well water around bases. Recent data from the EWG found 28 bases with PFAS levels in drinking water at levels above state standards

PFAS are also found in a wide range of consumer products used since the 1940s and have been found in cookware, pizza boxes, dental floss and stain repellents. According to the EPA, PFAS chemicals can cause harm to the immune system, impact infant birth weights, cause cancer or disrupt thyroid hormone production.

More than 100 Army installations were discovered to have drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to a recent report from the Army conducted by EWG. The highest levels were found in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; National Guard’s Joint Training Base in Los Alamitos, Calif.; and Belmont Armory, Mich.

The EPA designates per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as “a category of manmade chemicals that are found in everyday items.” The chemicals build up in the human body over time and are not able to be broken down by the environment.

Twitter: @StevenBeynon