Congress Hears Concerned Testimony About Repeal of Clean Water Rules

WASHINGTON (CN) – In 2010, Michael Hickney, a resident of Hoosick Falls, New York, introduced his father to his newborn son; the same day his father had a kidney removed due to cancer. Hickney’s father would die from his illness three years later.

In 2014 in Hoosick Falls, a teacher in her late 40s passed away after suffering a cancer-related disease. Her death caused speculation from residents on how people in the town were catching these illnesses, and it prompted Hickney to act.

On Wednesday, he testified during a Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing that drinking water he tested in Hoosick Falls returned positive for perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA – a type of chemical used in industrial surfactants that is linked to various health issues. Drinking water at Hackney’s own home tested positive for PFOAs at 460 parts per trillion.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it would repeal certain regulations of the Clean Water Act, the law which provides protections to the nation’s streams, estuaries, wetlands and other bodies of water from pollutants. The repeal limits the agency’s ability to regulate PFAS.

Through the repeal, the Clean Water Act will return to protective standards first set in the 1980s. More than half of the waterways in the nation currently protected by this law are expected to fall out of federal protection, including 99% percent of the streams mapped in Arizona and 97% in New Mexico.

Hickney said the new national action plan would delay the EPA’s ability to regulate PFAS chemicals until 2021. Currently, the agency does not have an enforceable standard for maximum contaminant levels for drinking water, Hickney said.

“We need Congress to step up to make sure that smaller communities like Hoosick Falls are taken care of and that they’re safe. These illnesses are real. They’re affecting people every day,” Hickney testified.

Dave Ross, the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, testified Wednesday that the agency is working towards defining a maximum contaminant level for drinking water. There are still numerous regulatory processes to comply with before issuing this standard, he said.

Representative Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., pushed Ross to commit to providing a maximum contaminant level for drinking water, saying it was “ridiculous” to speculate on the dangers of PFAS chemicals. 

Ross said taking a position on the importance of publishing these levels would undermine the agency’s current study by presuming the chemicals’ effects.

Ross also testified Wednesday that the EPA was looking to change the way the Clean Water Act defined “Waters of the United States,” which he argued took away states’ rights and responsibilities to monitor their own land. Additionally, the organization will revise section 401 of the law, which requires an applicant for a federal permit to adhere to Clean Water Act parameters regarding toxic discharge from a facility.

Representative Steven Lynch, D-Mass., said the proposed revisions limit states’ ability to refuse a federal water quality permit. It also limits the time states have to gather evidence to fight against issuing detrimental permits, he said.

“The water quality in Boston Harbor will not impact the ability of states to consider water quality impacts associated with that discretion,” Ross said.

“Well, you keep saying that, but you’re diminishing the shield that we have to protect our navigable waters,” Lynch said.

The committee also heard testimony from Maia Bellon, director of Washington’s Department of Ecology, Becky Keogh, secretary of Arkansas’ Energy and Environment department, Ken Kopocis, formerly the chief official for the Office of Water, Pam Nixon, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety and Geoffrey Gisler, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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