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Pennsylvania bill aims to ease PFAS-related drinking water charges

Proposed legislation would use funds from development on contaminated sites to help offset costs of cleaning tainted drinking water

In response to chemical contamination from a naval station in his district, Representative Todd Stephens, a Pennsylvania House Representative from Montgomery County, is pushing for legislation that would remove the financial pressure on citizens to clean their own drinking water.

This push from Rep. Stephens is indicative of a larger problem—figuring out how to pay to clean drinking water from the confirmed 21 sites throughout Pennsylvania contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The chemicals are used in products such as stain- and water-resistant clothing, nonstick pots and pans, firefighting foam, carpets, and furniture, and have been linked to various cancers, thyroid problems, low birth weights, and other problems. They're increasingly showing up in water throughout the U.S.

The PFAS class of chemicals includes more than 5,000 individual chemicals with similar properties. PFAS don't readily break down once they're in the environment, and they can accumulate in animal and human tissues.

PA House Bill 1410 would fund cleanup efforts using some state tax revenue generated by development on and around the original pollution site, Republican Rep. Stephens told EHN, and would also require the state to develop a statewide program to address PFAS contamination in drinking water.

"Even in those communities that might not have land that's available for redevelopment, the way mine does, there still will be a program for communities that need to remediate these chemicals," he said.

In Stephens' district, the federal government discovered widespread PFAS contamination in drinking water after closing the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Montgomery County in 2006. They notified local communities, which began filtering the chemicals from drinking water, but had to charge residents new surcharges to cover the costs.

The federal government "polluted drinking water, and local residents are paying to clean it up," Stephens said, calling it "unconscionable."

House Bill 1410 would redirect some of the state tax revenue from the former military site to a newly created municipal authority. The funds would then be used to pay for infrastructure projects aimed at encouraging redevelopment of the vacant former military site, and use some of the state tax revenue generated by future development to clean up lingering contamination in drinking water sources and eliminate those surcharges.

The bill also would require the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PennVEST), which invests in sewer, stormwater, and drinking water projects throughout the state, to develop a statewide funding program to address PFAS water contamination.

The bill is the latest attempt by local and state officials to find ways to tackle pollution with little guidance from federal agencies. Contamination is frequently found in communities near military sites, which used firefighting foam containing PFAS for decades.

Federal inaction 

Communities throughout the U.S. are dealing with PFAS contamination in their water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a "health advisory limit" of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for lifetime exposure to PFAS chemicals, but has not set an enforceable limit for the chemicals in drinking water.

In May 2018 the EPA held a three-day conference to hear from states dealing with PFAS contamination on what they can do about this overwhelming public health concern. Representatives from a number states urged the EPA to lower the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS to 14 ppt or lower. In February the agency said it's working on setting a MCL on two of the most common PFAS chemicals, but progress has been slow, and environmental health advocates worry that regulating just two of the more than 5,000 chemicals won't do enough to protect people's health.

In the face of federal inaction, a number of states have begun regulating some of the chemicals themselves. At least eight states either have policies in place or are pursuing policies related to PFAS, including Michigan, Alaska, California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

New Jersey has implemented the strictest MCL for PFAS in the nation—13 ppt for perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA—and is working to set the same limit for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). New Jersey has also filed lawsuits against a number of the companies responsible for PFAS contamination in the state.

"The federal government should be doing this, but they're not, so that's why the states have to step up," said Tracy Carluccio, a member of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told EHN. The environmental group has been active in combating PFAS contamination in multiple states on the east coast and has petitioned Pennsylvania to set a PFAS MCL.

"We believe that this should be the work of the federal government because that would be the most just thing to do and all states would have the same standards, but they're not doing that, so that's why the state actions are still important," she said. "This can't wait, it's an urgent issue."

"The polluter should pay" 

In the absence of federal guidance, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced plans to set its own MCLs for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most ubiquitous PFAS compounds, but progress has been slow.

Rep. Stephens said his bill is an additional step toward protecting citizens in Pennsylvania by creating a tax fund to pay for citizens' water cleanup so they no longer have to pay out of pocket.

Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeepers Network said the bill could be sustainable depending on how much revenue it produces.

"It's very expensive to get a handle on these contamination issues. It's not that it's out of reach, it's just that the funding hasn't been provided by polluters," Carluccio said.

"Whoever the polluter is, the polluter should pay."

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