Next Steps on Addressing PFAS Contamination in Drinking Water

December 17, 2019 - (5 min read)

Throughout the year, there was a growing concern across all levels of government about drinking water contamination from PFAS – a group of man-made chemicals that were made and used in a variety of industries around the globe, which have made their way into drinking water systems across the country, particularly in communities near military installations or industrial sites. To combat this, local leaders from the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the NLC Military Communities Council developed a resolution calling on Congress and the Administration to holistically examine PFAS contamination and to take comprehensive action to address this problem.

The NLC resolution, which passed last month at the Annual Business Meeting at City Summit in San Antonio, calls for the federal government to take additional actions, including to:

  • Ensure that the parties responsible for PFAS contamination, including the federal government, are held fully accountable for costs of cleanup and mitigation;
  • Accelerate research and technology development to advance the science needed to understand the health consequences of exposure to PFAS chemicals, detect and measure PFAS chemicals in water, treat water supplies to remove these substances, and find safe substitutes for PFAS chemicals;
  • Prevent further exposure to PFAS through multiple means, including promoting and funding the development and use of firefighting alternatives and phasing out the use of PFAS.

Importantly, the resolution recognizes that removing PFAS chemicals from water could require costly investments by local governments and other local water suppliers, which would be passed onto ratepayers. NLC calls on the federal government to avoid passing costs on to local governments and ratepayers.

Federal Action Continues on PFAS

At the Federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has moved forward on the agency’s February 2019 PFAS Action Plan, which describes EPA’s long- and short-term actions to address PFAS.

Last month, EPA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to gather input on whether data and information are available to require companies to report on how much of certain PFAS chemicals are released to the environment and/or managed through recycling, energy recovery, and treatment.

Additionally, per the agency’s PFAS Action Plan, EPA committed to making a regulatory determination on whether to regulate certain PFAS chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Earlier this month, EPA sent that action to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review, which is expected for public comment early next year.

If EPA makes a positive regulatory determination, it will begin the process to establish a national primary drinking water regulation.

NLC policy and PFAS resolution calls on the federal government to set drinking water standards based on sound science, public health protection, occurrence of the contamination in drinking water supplies at levels of public health concern, risk reduction and cost.

As the Administration’s work is continuing, action in Congress has stalled for the moment. At issue is disagreement between House and Senate leaders on whether to require EPA to regulate certain PFAS chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act, superseding EPA’s ongoing efforts to determine whether to set a drinking water standard, as well as to include PFAS chemicals under CERCLA, the Superfund cleanup program.

While NLC’s resolution does not address these items specifically, there is concern that unless local government or water utilities are exempt from the CERCLA provision, liability and cleanup costs could fall to local governments. The NLC resolution makes clear that local governments should not be held liable for PFAS contamination or cleanup costs.

Some PFAS provisions were included in both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed each chamber this summer. However, as Congressional leaders negotiated the final NDAA package, the controversial PFAS provisions were left out. The bill, however, directs the Department of Defense to stop using firefighting foam with PFAS after Oct. 2024 and bans the use of PFAS in food packaging for military field rations.

Additionally, efforts to regulate PFAS were not included in the final FY2020 appropriations package released this week, although the spending bills include funding for clean up efforts at military sites and drinking water – including $172 million through the Department of Defense and $20 million for state-level clean up through EPA.

As a next step, House leaders have said they plan to bring a PFAS package to the floor for a vote in January. Last month, the Energy and Commerce Committee passed the PFAS Action Act (H.R. 535), which would require EPA to designate all PFAS substances as hazardous materials under CERCLA, as well as incorporated text from 11 standalone PFAS bills.

As Congress and the administration move forward, NLC encourages local leaders to share their stories.


About the Author: Carolyn Berndt is the program director for infrastructure and sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.