Hearing: Reforming Our Nation's Drinking Water Standards

A Summary of the Opening Statements
July 28, 2020

The committee discusses water quality and important changes that need to be made to the Safe Drinking Water Act such as fixing the legal standard. There has not been a single new standard set in 24 years that wasn't required by Congress. There are regulatory problems, even knowing the health dangers of certain chemicals for decades. 

Congressman Paul Tonko: Drinking water systems that serve millions of people have detected PFOA and PFOS at levels above EPA health advisory levels. Many more have PFAS contamination, which is likely still a threat to human health. The process of how EPA sets standards exposes issues. EPA has relied on unenforceable health levels. Many people believe that if EPA has enough evidence, they should move to establish a standard advisory. Still, EPA is not using this tool to its fullest and may not want to issue an advisory due to fear that there becomes an expectation that more will need to be done. The lack of a PFAS standard demonstrates what happens in the absence of federal actions. States have been forced to step up to protect their communities. Federal standards have consistently failed to be developed. EPA should set standards in a reasonable timeframe. Congress can play a larger role in infrastructure and preventing contamination from happening in the first place. We need national standards that are protective of all American's. 

Congressman John Shimkus: There are 5,887 known PFAS chemicals, and we can only test for 29 in drinking water. It would be helpful to focus on the ones that are bad and not link them to the short-chain PFAS. Water systems complain that compliance costs may triple for new regulations, including contamination issues that are not in their state. Since 1996 the EPA has been regulating contaminants in drinking water like arsenic, and their work should not be discounted. It's useful to examine laws to see if something can be done better, but before we get carried away, let's consider the lessons of history, so we don't' go back and make the same mistakes twice.

Congressman Frank Pallone: Safe drinking water is essential to our nation's public health, and right now, families are struggling to keep the water turned on. In too many communities, families are worried that the contaminants in their water, including PFAS, have weakened their immune system and made them more susceptible to COVID-19. Every American should be able to turn on their tap and know their water is safe and healthy. Where you live should not play a factor in whether or not your water is safe. There is a fundamental weakness in both the design and implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act that leaves us at risk. The current water standard-setting process, which was developed in 1996, simply does not work. There are 90 drinking water standards in place for groups of contamination and all, but 6 of those standards were established before the 1996 changes. The 6 standards put in place since then were all established under special statutory procedures. In the last 24 years, the EPA hasn't been able to set a drinking water standard under the general process. Another issue is that the Safe Drinking Water Act is not designed to produce health base standards. Lastly, The Safe Drinking Water Act leaves too much discretion to the EPA. We have to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure everyone has access to drinking water that is safe and healthy. 

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: We've needed reform for a long time so that we are protecting future generations. Access to clean and safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. At its core, the Safe Drinking Water Act was designed to ensure everyone is afforded that human rights, but over recent years it has become evident that this standard-setting process doesn't work. This includes mitigating new harmful emerging contaminants like PFAS. We know that PFAS is a forever chemical that causes damage, and when it goes into your body, it doesn't come out. It's time we improve the standard-setting process to one that works efficiently, in a timely manner, that is health-based, and covers vulnerable populations. 

Congressman Greg Walden: Almost 2 years ago, Congress capped off for the first time in 25 years the comprehensive reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The act had overwhelming bipartisan support and focused on improving utility compliance, aiding state efforts to help to drink water systems, bringing innovation resilience to the drinking water sector, bettering management of utility assets, and greatly improving poor performing water systems. Significant changes to a core environmental law require overwhelming bipartisan support. Objective science should guide decisions, and the Safe Drinking Wate Act currently requires that science is at the forefront of decision-making processes, and this should remain the case for public health. There are concerns with efforts to eliminate risk from the act. Specifically, some have called for the removal of the current statutory criteria focused on "meaningful health reductions" or that the contaminant occurrence is at a "frequency in the levels of public concern." This would result in community water systems spending significant resources on the reduction of contaminants that may not present a substantial threat to public health. Issuing numerous drinking water regulations for contaminants that don't' occur at levels for health concern will divert limited resources for more important issues to ensure drinking water. We must be mindful of the burden reforms would have on states. We're apprehensive about the impact that this would have on the scientific communities' ability to provide the health effects research and high-quality peer-reviewed risk assessments needed to establish regulatory goals for the increasing number of contaminants the EPA would be required to regulate. 

Witness Mae Wue, Senior Director of Health and Food at NRDC: The cost of the disease is beyond the total medical bill. The EPA can exploit its inability to quantify these intangibles to set weaker drinking water standards. This and other problems in the 
Safe Drinking Water Act have left EPA unable and perhaps unwilling to set health-protective standards despite the science that demands otherwise. The 1996 amendments created a new process to regulate contaminants but it's broken. 

Take perchlorate for example, by the 1990s science showed that perchlorate exposure to pregnant women could significantly interfere with the developing brain of fetuses and infants with lifelong consequences. This chemical was found in millions of Americans' drinking water. In 2011, EPA finally announced it would regulate it which triggered important statutory deadlines, but those deadlines came and went with not perchlorate standard. Now, the Trump administration is trying to defy a court order requiring EPA to act on the 2011 finding. 

History may soon repeat itself. The EPA recently made a preliminary decision to regulate PFOA and PFOS, and a massive study shows a link between PFOA contaminated water and health issues. These chemicals were found in the drinking water of millions of Americans, and without changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act, we may not see PFOA and PFOS standards that protect the most vulnerable population. 

Five ways to fix it: 
1. Fix the legal standard. EPA should regulate a contaminate when it may have an adverse effect on human health, and it occurs in public water at levels of concern. 

2. EPA should stop cherry-picking what not to regulate. Over the past 17 years, the EPA has made final decisions for 25 unregulated contaminates and decided to not regulate 24 of them; the 25th is perchlorate, which remains unregulated. The statute should push the EPA to act.

3. Get rid of the extra cost-benefit analysis. The EPA is required to set drinking water standards based on feasibility. Meaning using the best technology available and taking cost into consideration. The problem is that while costs are straightforward to quantify, the benefits are often undercounted.

4. Standards need to be as stringent as feasible and not just consider but protect pregnant women, infants, children, and other vulnerable populations.

5. The EPA needs to move beyond the whack-a-mole approach towards a class-based approach. PFOA and PFOS are but two of more than 7,000 chemicals in that class. While the US manufacturers recently phased out PFOA and PFOS production, their replacements are showing similar adverse health and environmental effects. Going one by one will lead to drinking water contaminated with forever chemicals for hundreds of years. The EPA needs to take a class-based approach to regulate drinking water.

Witness Shellie Chard, Director of the Water Quality Division of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality: 

1. The EPA must set standards in a reasonable timeframe by using sound science and collaboration with the states. The timeline to develop a new standard must be reasonable. The process must have balance so that we don't lose confidence in the process. 

2. The EPA must consider the availability of and help develop appropriate testing methods, laboratory capacity, treatment technologies, and federal and state data systems. 

3. The EPA must consider the differences in water system characteristics based on geography, population served, affordability, and source water.  One size does not fit all in terms of water sources population geographic separation local economic condition and other factors. 

4. EPA must be clear in the regulatory framework. It's critically important that the standards set and the compliance determined to be clear and understandable for regulators, the regulated community, and the public. The differences in immediate and health impact versus potential long-term impacts have been distorted over time. 

5. The EPA must consider the need for workforce training and assist the water sector in achieving a sustainable workforce. As new standards are established public water operators and laboratory staff must understand the various technologies and testing that is required.

Witness Diane VanDe HEI, CEO Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies: As municipal public entities we are rate bearers. We report to not investors and collect no profit. Any expenses incurred by publicly-owned drinking water systems are ultimately paid for by the community through their water rates or other municipal investments. The economic fallout of the pandemic will still hit water systems and their customers hard. Everyone agrees that federal drinking water standards should call for safe, clean water that is free of contaminants that pose public health threats, but we also must remember that treating water to high standards requires significant investments in chemicals, equipment, and professional staff. Any law that guides the standard-setting process must consider both cost and public health benefits. Whether the contaminant may harm public health, there is a sustainable likelihood that the contaminant will occur in public water supplies at a frequency and at levels of public health concern or regulation presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction among individuals served by the public water system we believe that each of these criteria is critical to focus attention and limited resources on contaminants that pose the biggest threat. When the EPA does move forward with a new drinking water regulation the 1996 amendments require transparency and focus on the balance of scientific data to guide the results. The EPA must also consider the effects of the contaminants on the general population as long as vulnerable populations are at more risk. 

The Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change of the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a remote hearing on Tuesday, July 28, at 11 a.m. via Cisco Webex.  The hearing was entitled, "There's Something in the Water: Reforming Our Nation's Drinking Water Standards." 

Link: https://energycommerce.house.gov/committee-activity/hearings/hearing-on-theres-something-in-the-water-reforming-our-nations-drinking?fbclid=IwAR0AD6x1MYgP9ZCZPQjDEd7rZ6cUbNZTiTMykq8NH5LseQQd2wYkS6IYR9c

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