The Trump administration has failed to act swiftly enough to protect the public from harmful contaminants present in drinking water throughout the country, U.S. senators told senior administration officials Thursday.
Democrats and Republicans alike expressed frustration over the federal government’s response to the widespread drinking water contamination by chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the issue.
The man-made chemicals — used in everything from fire-fighting foam to clothing and nonstick pans — are found on military bases and in other U.S. communities. They have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems, and environmental and public health advocates want faster cleanup and strict guidelines for the allowable limits of the chemicals in drinking water.
“Far too many communities worry about the quality of their drinking water in this country,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said at the hearing, where officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense testified about the federal response to the health risks associated with the chemicals.
EPA and DOD, Duckworth said, have “failed to understand the scope of the PFAS problem and they’ve failed to determine how to dispose of the chemical — which persists in the environment and our bodies — and regulate the chemical.”
The Trump EPA announced an “action plan” in February to address the health problems, but critics say it isn’t aggressive enough, and the administration won’t commit to a timeline for regulation.
David Ross, EPA’s top water official, said the agency is committed to “proposing a regulatory determination this year” and would “move through that process as expeditiously as possible.”
But he declined to give a timeline for regulating PFAS in drinking water. “It’s a long process, to be frank,” Ross said, adding that the agency was committed to using the best science possible.
Public exposure to PFAS chemicals is “extremely widespread,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, told lawmakers. She testified that in the United States, studies have shown “virtually all individuals” — 97 percent — have “detectable” PFAS concentrations in their blood.
Maryland Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) pointed to military sites in their state where PFAS contamination has been detected. Those include the White Oak Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Detachment, Fort Meade, the Naval Research Laboratory Chesapeake Bay Detachment and the Naval Academy.
Cardin called for the government to strive to “prevent further contamination where we can,” but also to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for paying for cleanup.
Van Hollen also noted concerns about NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va., a popular tourist destination just across the Maryland line where PFAS contaminants were detected.
“We’ve had concerns raised by federal employees who work there,” Van Hollen said.
NASA used firefighting foam containing PFAS at Wallops, the Associated Press reported. The agency said last summer that the water there had been PFAS-free for more than a year.
Ross told Van Hollen Thursday that EPA’s regional staff was working with Virginia and the local community to evaluate the contamination and provide technical assistance.
Robin Bravender is Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom.