Senator introduces bill to protect U.S. water utilities from PFAS cleanup costs, litigation

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wastewater clarifier treatment
In March, the U.S. EPA raised the stakes again when it also set legal limits for PFAS in drinking water. Photo Credit: Kalyakan, stock.adobe.com

A Wyoming senator has introduced a liability protection bill to shield U.S. water utilities from being pulled into legal actions taken against PFAS manufacturers or industrial users of the “forever chemicals”.

Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) designed the bill with the Water Coalition Against PFAS as lawsuits and settlements around per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, began to ramp up within the last year. The legal actions follow the move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to formally designate two of the most common PFAS – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) – as hazardous substances.

In March, the EPA raised the stakes again when it also set legal limits for PFAS in drinking water. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) says that Black & Veatch conducted a study on behalf of the association that estimated the national cost for water systems to install treatment to remove PFOA and PFOS to levels required by the EPA’s proposal exceeds $3.8 billion annually.

PFAS are a group of more than 4,700 synthetic chemicals that have been part of industrial processes and consumer product production for items such as food packaging, textiles, firefighting foams and cosmetics. Some of these substances can be absorbed into the body and natural environment, persisting for many years.

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Five water sector associations representing drinking and clean water utility systems submitted a letter to Congress last month in support of the Water Systems PFAS Liability Protection Act. These include the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the National Rural Water Association, and the Water Environment Federation.

“A liability exemption will allow utilities to continue protecting public health and not place a financial burden for PFAS cleanup on ratepayers or taxpayers. The economic burden should be borne by PFAS producers, not the public,” announced Walt Marlowe, executive director of the Water Environment Federation.

Of particular concern in the group’s letter to Congress is if a water utility disposed of PFAS-contaminated water that reached a landfill or other facility that ever became a Superfund remediation site. In this situation, “the water system could be treated as a PFAS polluter — and be responsible for a portion or even all the cleanup costs” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known as CERCLA. Local ratepayers could be forced to cover the cleanup bill “after they already paid to remove the contaminants from their source water,” the letter states.

Lummis
U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sen. Lummis has also designed legislation that would protect wastewater treatment plants, solid waste and recycling facilities, composters, as well as agricultural producers. There are even portions of the bills covering airports and entities with fire suppression systems, where PFAS use was commonplace.

All five of the bills are co-sponsored by seven Republican senators, all of whom serve on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“There is no doubt we need to consider the environmental impacts of PFAS chemicals but suing entities who did not contribute to the contamination is overkill, especially considering some of these entities, such as ranches and water facilities, are just downstream receivers,” Lummis said in a statement to media. 

The Water Systems PFAS Liability Protection Act has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

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