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Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Wednesday introduced legislation targeting toxic "forever chemicals" in drinking water. (Photo: Peter Werkman/Flickr/cc)

Sanders Takes Aim at Corporate Polluters With Bill to Clean Up Toxic 'Forever Chemicals' in Drinking Water

"Congress must pass this legislation to put an end to corporate stonewalling and criminal behavior and tackle this public health crisis."

Jessica Corbett

"It is not a radical idea to demand that when people in the world's richest country turn on their taps, the water they drink is free of toxic chemicals."

"It lays out a plan to finally hold polluters accountable to pay for cleanup of the worst contamination, while providing much needed financial relief for rural homeowners and local governments that need to upgrade treatment plants to remove these forever chemicals."
—Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Action

So said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Wednesday as he introduced new legislation that would required a national cleanup effort of drinking water contaminated by the toxic "forever chemcials" per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS.

Studies have tied this class of chemicals—which have been used in products ranging from nonstick pans and stain-resistant furniture to firefighting foam—to health issues including various cancer, weakened childhood immunity, and endocrine disruption.

The Prevent Future American Sickness (PFAS) Act says the chemicals "have so far been confirmed in the groundwater or tap water of more than 1,400 communities" nationwide, though scientists estimate that more than a million people in the country could be living with PFAS-contaminated tap water.

Noting that, in the absence of federal regulations, "states such as Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Michigan are leading the way in terms of setting robust drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals," the bill (pdf) aims to address the issue at a national level.

The bill would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate PFAS as hazardous under both the Clean Air and and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—commonly called CERCLA or Superfund. As Sanders' office summarizes (pdf), it also would set up "authorizations for EPA grants for drinking and wastewater infrastructure to address PFAS contamination in publicly owned water treatment plants, and residential water wells."

The legislation would further ban these "forever chemicals" in food packaging and ban the incineration of PFAS firefighting foam. It would direct the EPA to examine other contaminated waste that shouldn't be burned and require the Pentagon to put out a report detailing where in the country its firefighting foam is now and where it has been incinerated over the past decade.

"As hundreds of communities across the country are dealing with toxic PFAS contamination in their drinking water," Sanders said Wednesday, "it is unconscionable that huge corporations like DuPont have, for decades, concealed evidence of how dangerous these compounds are in order to keep profiting at the expense of human health. Congress must pass this legislation to put an end to corporate stonewalling and criminal behavior and tackle this public health crisis."

"Congress needs to come together to put the health of our communities above the wish lists of American's biggest polluters, and that means establishing and enforcing chemical standards that protect Americans from PFAS substances."
—Sen. Jeff Merkley

According to a statement from Sanders' office, the bill incorporates both the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act that he introduced last year as well as an effort with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) to direct the Pentagon to disclose details about storing and disposing of firefighting foam.

Sanders, a leading candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race, unveiled the PFAS Act with support from Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

"Every American—regardless of the color of their skin, their zip code, or their income—has the right to be free from exposure to a slew of carcinogens and hazardous chemicals," said Merkley. "But millions of people are ingesting dangerous PFAS chemicals against their will through the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat. Congress needs to come together to put the health of our communities above the wish lists of American's biggest polluters, and that means establishing and enforcing chemical standards that protect Americans from PFAS substances."

Markey—who introduced the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in February 2019—highlighted that landmark climate and economic resolution, which Sanders supports, in the statement Wednesday. "PFAS pose a serious health risk to residents across Massachusetts and the country," he said. "Cleaning up our air, soil, and water of these forever chemicals is an important component of the Green New Deal, as we fight to provide our communities with a future free of the legacy of corporate pollution."

The PFAS Act also already has the backing of at least one advocacy organization: Food & Water Action, which also supported last year's WATER Act.

"Senator Sanders has proposed an urgent solution to address the widespread PFAS contamination of our food and water," said Food & Water Action executive director Wenonah Hauter. "His Prevent Future American Sickness Act of 2020 would rapidly speed up the remediation of toxic PFAS sites across our country. It lays out a plan to finally hold polluters accountable to pay for cleanup of the worst contamination, while providing much needed financial relief for rural homeowners and local governments that need to upgrade treatment plants to remove these forever chemicals."

"This is the sort of concrete and swift action we need to take to help ensure that every American has access to safe water," Hauter declared. "Our communities can't wait; we need Congress to act now to address America's toxic water crisis."

Sanders will discuss the bill tonight on Facebook Live at 6:30 pm ET. He will be joined by activist and actor Mark Ruffalo, scientist Dr. Anna Reade, and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). Dingell, who has been a leading force for federal PFAS regulation in the Democrat-controlled House, is the lead sponsor of the PFAS Action Act, which passed the lower chamber earlier this month in a 247-159 vote, largely along party lines.

The measure—like Sanders' bill—faces an uncertain future in a Republican-held Senate. Even if Dingell's bill were to pass the upper chamber, President Donald Trump has threatened to veto it.


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