House approves PFAS legislation; AMWA objects

U.S. Capitol Building

Under legislation approved by the House of Representatives last week, the U.S. EPA would be given two years to finalize a drinking water regulation for two common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The measure, the PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535), would also put in place an expedited process for the regulation of additional PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and require EPA to regularly issue drinking water health advisories for additional PFAS.

Passage of the measure came to the objections of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and other water sector organizations that have laid out a number of concerns about the proposal. AMWA has argued that any new drinking water standards established for PFAS should follow the transparent and science-based regulatory process called for under SDWA, and the association joined with other water sector organizations last week to highlight concerns about language in the bill that would require EPA to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) – but without ensuring liability protections for water systems that must dispose of water treatment byproducts containing PFAS.

Last week’s letter from AMWA warned that even a “water system that follows all applicable laws in its management of water treatment byproducts containing PFAS” could incur liability for costs associated with cleaning up the disposal site where the contaminants are ultimately deposited. This, the letter said, would unfairly force water systems to both pay for treatment technologies to remove PFAS from their waters and also for remediating environmental damage elsewhere.

Despite these concerns the House passed H.R. 535 by a vote of 247-159, with 24 Republicans joining nearly all Democrats in support of the bill. House Democrats had made enacting new regulations to respond to PFAS pollution a top priority for 2020 after attempts to add similar language to a defense policy bill late last year fell apart. The final version of H.R. 535 includes a number of provisions that had been dropped from last year’s defense bill, including mandates for EPA to finalize a drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS within two years and to follow an expedited schedule when developing drinking water regulations and health advisories for other PFAS.

House lawmakers adopted a handful of amendments to H.R. 535 before passage, including a proposal to require EPA to designate only PFOA and PFOS – rather than all PFAS – as hazardous substances under CERCLA, and another to increase authorized funding for a new grant program to help water systems to remove PFAS from drinking water. But an amendment supported by AMWA and other water sector associations, that would have scaled back some of the proposed SDWA regulatory changes for PFAS, was not offered for a vote.

Though H.R. 535 has passed the House, it faces a difficult path ahead. Republican Senate leaders have expressed no interest in taking up the bill, and the White House has issued a veto threat against the bill. Rather than moving forward as a cohesive package, individual parts of H.R. 535 may be part of negotiations later this year as the House and Senate piece together the next reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act.

Source: AMWA. Information contained in this news update was first reported in the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies’ Monday Morning Briefing for Jan. 13.

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