For the past few years, New Jersey has taken a lead nationally in addressing the risks associated with a range of manmade chemicals linked to health problems in water systems across the nation.
Now Congress appears poised to take a huge first step to detailing how widespread the public exposure is to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — chemicals used in a range of household products such as non-stick cookware as well as foam used in firefighting.
With bipartisan support, advocates managed to add amendments to the annual Department of Defense spending appropriation to monitor drinking-water supplies to understand the scope of the problem and possibly accelerate cleanup of contaminated sites.
The legislation already has cleared the Senate and is expected to be taken up by the House this week, according to Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The versions may differ slightly, requiring a conference committee to agree on a substitute.
EWG, a national advocate for stricter limits on the chemicals, is hoping the final version will include language designating hundreds of PFAS as hazardous substances under the national Superfund law, a process that could accelerate cleanup of 117 military bases where the contaminant has been found, primarily from use of foam in suppressing fires.
Contamination seen across country
Two of those bases are in New Jersey where contamination has been found in groundwater at levels hundreds of times higher than guidance limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They are the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and the former Naval Air Warfare Center Trenton, now Trenton Mercer airport.
Officials in some states — including New Jersey, where 43 sites have been identified where the contaminants have been found — are setting tough health limits on PFAS in drinking water. There is growing evidence exposure to PFAS can harm the immune and reproductive systems and also cause cancer, according to advocates.
In New Jersey, the state Department of Environmental Protection has adopted the nation’s strictest drinking-water standard for PFNA, another PFAS chemical, and are in the process of setting regulations for two other similar substances, PFOA and PFOS — compounds that have been found in the Garden State more often and at higher concentrations than in many other states.
EWG has accused the Department of Defense of dragging its feet in cleaning up contaminated military bases. “No bill is more appropriate than the annual defense bill to make sure the department lives up to its responsibilities,’’ Faber said.
Pushback from chemical industry
The bill easily passed the Senate, but any compromise measure would have to be signed by President Trump to become law. “It’s unthinkable the President will veto the annual defense bill,’’ he said.
“Everyone agrees that PFAS is linked to very serious health problems,’’ Faber said. But industry lobbyists are arguing against the push to include hundreds of PFAS as hazardous substances, saying it is not justified.
“On a lot of these issues, people are rushing things through on a mob mentality without looking at the real science,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey. “There are so many kinds of PFAS, there are so many different chemicals that make up them, they can’t be all lumped together.’’
At the federal level, the EPA does not set national enforceable standards for any PFAS chemicals but says it intends to begin regulation PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2019.
“The amendments will not solve the problem, but it is a good first step,’’ Faber said of the pending legislation.