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‘Political will’ for action on PFAS is growing, advocates say

PFAS hearing
Teresa Homsi
/
WCMU News
Federal officials testify at the Aug. 1 PFAS hearing, hosted by Senator Gary Peters.

In a crowded room in East Lansing, Senator Gary Peters introduced a panel of witnesses on Aug. 1.

Throughout the morning, federal officials testify about how they’re addressing PFAS. Witnesses who represent state and local perspectives also testify about the impacts of PFAS exposure.

The hearing ranged from informative to tense when Peters addresses a representative from the air force on the slow response to contamination in Oscoda.

“I think I speak for everyone who lives in the area that this is simply unacceptable,” Peters said.

It also got emotional when Cathy Wusterbarth spoke. She was a lifeguard and swam in a PFAS-contaminated lake in Oscoda for a number of summers.

“To this day, I continue to battle these diseases much like my mother, my father, and both sisters who have lifetime illnesses, potentially associated with their PFAS exposure,” she said.

Peters said the testimonies give a sense of urgency to acting on PFAS, and the hearing’s record will be used to inform federal legislation.

“One of the major takeaways of the hearing is just how comprehensive we have to be in addressing this problem,” he said. “There is no one-size-fits-all response.”

Bentley Johnson is the federal government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV).

He said the EPA’s latest health guidelines - that show the high toxicity of PFAS - have gotten the attention of federal policymakers. He cited the latest National Defense Authorization Act, which sets aside $560 million dollars for PFAS restoration and research.

“We're not seeing this as a partisan issue,” Johnson said. “That carries over into the state level, where members of all political leanings have been advocating for funding. Once they get educated on this, they're really concerned and they want to do something about it.”

Although there is bipartisan support for funding PFAS research and remediation, preventative policies are not seeing as much traction.

For example, the Michigan state legislature introduced a few bills last year that would require a warning label on consumer products that contain PFAS. Since the bills were introduced, they’ve sat, untouched.

Banning the use of PFAS, altogether, is an even bigger challenge. Only two of the 5,000 PFAS compounds are no longer manufactured in the US, though they are still imported from abroad.

“You'll find state lawmakers and regulators very hesitant to ban something that's sold through interstate commerce,” said Hallie Fox, a government affairs coordinator with MLCV.

Fox said the “political will” to act on PFAS is growing - to an extent.

“You'll hear a lot of lawmakers be like, ‘oh, well, we need the federal government to do something about it.’” she said. “No, you don't need the federal government to do something about it. You would just feel more comfortable.

Michigan, in some ways, is ahead of the curve. Currently, 30 states have no regulations on PFAS in drinking water. As part of the EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap, The EPA is proposing PFAS drinking water standards this fall that - if enacted - will eventually apply to the entire country.

For the time being, PFAS regulation in Michigan is business as usual. A representative from the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team said the state will follow the EPA’s guidance to eventually update standards.

Back at the hearing, it’s clear that PFAS aren’t going anywhere - as “forever” chemicals, and as “everywhere” chemicals as well.

How we proceed in regulating, studying, and remedying PFAS will have far-reaching impacts.

Advocates said it’s been a long and frustrating journey, one that’s far from over. But the growing recognition and concern, is a promising step toward action.

This is the final part to the WCMU series Demystifying PFAS. To listen to the rest of the series, visit wcmu.org and search “Demystifying PFAS.”

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at https://www.reportforamerica.org/