They’re in our clothes, our food and our blood. We made them virtually indestructible, but there’s evidence that they can destroy us.
They’re per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), industrial chemicals whose extensive contamination and deleterious health effects have left a toxic legacy in West Virginia.
But West Virginia’s congressional delegation isn’t on the same page when it comes to recently reintroduced federal legislation designed to protect Americans from PFAS, the “forever chemicals” that don’t break down in the human body and the environment and can be found in food, household products and drinking water.
Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., last week announced legislation that would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a national drinking water standard for two of the most extensively found PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
The PFAS Action Act would designate PFOA and PFOS chemicals as hazardous substances within one year and requires EPA to determine whether to list other PFAS within five years, require the EPA to place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS, mandate comprehensive PFAS health testing and create a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.
The PFAS Action Act of 2021 is largely identical to a version that the House of Representatives passed last year before stalling in the Senate without a vote there.
Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., who voted against the PFAS Action Act of 2019, is undecided on the 2021 version, saying he would review changes that were made in the reintroduced legislation, even though he voted against the nearly identical bill last year.
“Before making new regulations for a diverse set of chemicals, Congress should seek input from both the public and stakeholders. Congress, through the PFAS Action Act, would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to make a one-size-fits-all rule regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances [PFAS],” Mooney said, adding that he would seek input from constituents.
Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., voted against the 2019 version and is against the 2021 version, too.
“It’s crucial we protect public health and the environment — especially in the Mountain State — from the challenges associated with PFAS, but House Democrats’ overreaching legislation is not the answer,” Miller said in a statement, adding that she felt the legislation could have a negative impact on cellphone and medical device manufacturing processes that use PFAS.
Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., voted for the 2019 bill but could not be reached for comment on the 2021 legislation. Neither could Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., or Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who were among the 52 senators who co-sponsored a Senate version of the bill in 2019.
The legislation has been endorsed by the Environmental Working Group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumer Reports, Green Science Policy Institute, League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Law & Policy Center, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Food & Water Watch, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
But Dr. Phil Brown, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab that studies the chemicals and a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University, said he wants to see federal legislation go even further, noting that the bill focuses only on PFOA and PFOS.
“A lot of us in this area think that we really need to regulate these chemicals more as [a] class, because, if we wait around a long time to study each one singly, we don’t get very far,” Brown said.
The EPA does not have enforceable limits on the levels of PFOA or related chemicals in drinking water.
“Right now, all we have are advisory levels, but no actual regulations,” Brown said. “So the good thing there is, regulations would start to occur at the federal level and not just leave it up to the states.”
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified PFOA as a possible human carcinogen in 2017.
Parkersburg was the site of DuPont’s Teflon factory, which, for decades, discharged PFAS into drinking water supplies beginning in 1951. DuPont agreed not to use PFOA after 2015, but an October 2020 House Environment subcommittee letter noted a continued PFOA presence at the Chemours (formerly DuPont) Washington Works facility in Parkersburg.
People living in the area experienced increased rates of testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. DuPont was sued by more than 3,000 Mid-Ohio Valley residents, leading to it paying nearly $700 million in settlements.
Brown touted the bill’s provision designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous chemicals under the federal Superfund law authorizing remedial responses to releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances.
“So, there are places like Parkersburg, West Virginia ... [that have been] huge sites of contamination, but you can’t make them Superfund sites,” Brown said.
McKinley, Miller and Mooney all voted for a failed amendment to the 2019 version of the bill prior to its passage in the House that would have removed the designation of PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.
In January, DuPont announced that the chemical conglomerate, along with Corteva and the Chemours Company, which was formed as a spinoff of DuPont's performance chemicals division, agreed to establish a $1 billion maximum escrow account to address potential future PFAS liabilities.
“We need [the] EPA to take the lead, otherwise I’m concerned nothing will be done in West Virginia to set statewide standards,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said.
A bill introduced in last year’s West Virginia legislative session that would have established maximum contaminant levels or treatment techniques for certain PFAS pollutants died in the House Health and Human Resources Committee. However, a Senate concurrent resolution asking the state departments of Environmental Protection and Health and Human Resources to initiate a public source-water-supply study plan to sample PFAS for all community water systems in West Virginia was approved.
The U.S. Geological Survey has been contracted by the departments to conduct PFAS sampling in West Virginia and has 26 sites remaining out of 280, DEP acting spokesman Terry Fletcher said. The sampling is on schedule.
“I feel personally that the federal government owes people of the Ohio Valley stronger protection against PFOA,” Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition project coordinator Dustin White said. “We were some of the first people who were exposed to it.”