A trio of major bills providing billions of dollars in funding to improve water infrastructure and listing PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances have passed the first hurdle in the U.S. Congress, despite opposition from Indiana representatives.
Reps. Larry Bucshon and Greg Pence, Indiana members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, voted against the bills, which could allow Indiana communities to upgrade overwhelmed water systems, help low-income Hoosiers maintain water connections and protect waterways from toxic PFAS contamination.
The Assistance, Quality and Affordability Act of 2021 passed the committee by a vote of 32 to 24. The bill increases the amount of money the federal government allocates for drinking water system resilience funding and lead service line replacement; removes requirements for states to match funding in order to receive infrastructure aid; and includes mandates for federal standards for new drinking water contaminants like PFAS, algal toxins called microcystins and 1,4-dioxane.
The Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Programs Act of 2021, which would provide grants and other aid to low-income Americans, passed the committee by a 32 to 24 vote.
Both bills will be packaged into a larger Invest in America Act highway bill that will head to the full U.S. House of Representatives for a vote next week.
Bucshon, who represents Indiana’s 8th District in the southwestern part of the state, said he was not against federal efforts to fund infrastructure but opposed to investment on “every subject.”
“The federal government can’t solve every problem,” Bucshon said during the committee’s markup session June 23. “A lot of these things can be done at the local level, in my view, with federal support. But the more we continue on every issue to allow leaders across this country to punt to Washington, D.C. for a solution, the more problems we're going to continue to have, and also the more loss of local control of our communities that we're going to continue to experience.”
The state cannot afford to fund all requests for water infrastructure projects, which usually cost tens of millions of dollars and are required in nearly every town, city or county.
In the last year alone, the state received at least $309 million in requests for funding for large water systems.
The state of Indiana maintains several programs to fund water infrastructure projects, but the core funding for those programs originates within the federal government.
The state’s main conduit for water infrastructure funding, the State Revolving Fund, begins with grants allocated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Clean Water Act.
The state asks for funds, then sells the grants as bonds on the municipal bond market. The state then uses the money made, plus matching funds, to give out low-interest loans to communities for water infrastructure projects.
Once the loans are repaid to the fund, they are disbursed again to fund other projects.
The state also depends on funds from the federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act for the State Revolving Fund. In 2019, the EPA announced a $436 million WIFIA loan to the Indiana Finance Authority, the state agency that oversees the SRF, to finance wastewater and drinking water projects in 20 Hoosier communities.
This year, the Indiana General Assembly allocated $100 million of the state’s nearly $3.1 billion federal Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to create a State Water Infrastructure Fund program.
Current funding may not be enough to keep up with the increasing stresses to local water infrastructure.
Climate change is altering the amount of rain and snow that falls in the state and even changing the way rain falls.
Those changes, plus legislative decisions like the removal of state protections for a vast majority of the state’s wetlands, threaten to place further stresses on water infrastructure throughout the state.
Despite the challenges faced by Indiana communities, Bucshon said that decades of local inaction should not result in federal taxpayers footing the bill.
“One of the things that the federal government should provide is infrastructure, but there are some areas of infrastructure that I would argue have been neglected locally and in states for decades. And now, everyone wants us to bail all that out with federal taxpayer dollars, we just can't continue to do that on every issue,” he testified. “But in many areas, local officials of both political parties need to be held accountable for the things that they do that result in us at the federal level needing to address issues that I feel could be addressed.”
The bill passed despite the ideological criticism from Bucshon and other House Republicans.
A third bill passed the committee by a 33 to 20 vote. The PFAS Action Act of 2021 would, among other things, require the EPA to eventually designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, otherwise known as the CERCLA or the Superfund law.
The designation would give the federal government power to direct PFAS manufacturers and users to report how much PFAS they produce or use and enforce cleanups of PFAS chemicals, like it does for the thousands of chemicals currently considered hazardous substances.
The bill would give the EPA one year to designate PFOS and PFOA, two of a family of thousands of potentially toxic PFAS chemicals, as hazardous substances. It also sets a 5-year timeline for the EPA to determine whether to designate all PFAS substances as hazardous substances.
Bucshon opposed the bill, saying it would impose greater liabilities on the manufacturers of lifesaving devices like vascular grafts, heart patches, catheter tubes and stent grafts.
“The bill would impose Superfund liability on life-saving and other medically beneficial products that have already undergone a rigorous approval process conducted by the FDA to ensure they are safe to use,” he said. “The legislation completely fails to consider the fact that there are some PFAS, notably fluoropolymers, that are the critical component in a device or that make a device or drugs efficacy possible.”
Fluoropolymers have been touted by plastics manufacturing trade groups and manufacturers themselves as PFAS “polymers of low concern,”with “insignificant” environmental and human health effects. The polymers have been used as rationale for the argument that PFAS chemicals should not be addressed as a class but should be regulated individually, contrary to the arguments of many scientists.
Recent research found that fluoropolymers have the same threats to human health and the environment as traditional PFAS and should not be considered “polymers of low concern.”
Bucshon, a former cardiothoracic surgeon heavily financed by the health industry and pharmaceutical manufacturers, filed an amendment to the bill that would provide PFAS liability exemptions for drug and medical device manufacturers. The bill failed to pass the committee.
The bill now heads to the full House for consideration.