Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Remediation and Impact of PFAS Hearing

2021-03-24 14:16

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on Remediation and Impact of PFAS:

We’re having this hearing today to dig deeper into an issue many on this committee care a lot about, as Members of Congress responsible for the well-being of our military and our veterans and as human beings.  

This will be a critical look at a public health and environmental crisis that has challenged the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs for years.

I’m referring to the widespread chemical contamination of our military installations and surrounding communities by a family of manmade, toxic chemicals known as PFAS.  This contamination has plagued our servicemembers, veterans, and even their families and communities for decades.  

This is a story of tragedy, deception, bureaucratic incompetence, and tireless advocacy by servicemembers, veterans, and nonprofit advocates who have devoted themselves to elevating this issue, seeking out justice, and fighting to clean up military sites so that no one else is poisoned by this toxic mess.

This is not our first hearing on this important subject. I’m proud to say that this subcommittee has aggressively pursued answers from the Department of Defense on their plans to clean up these contaminants and provide resources to those who have been harmed. We expect a full progress report on these efforts today.  

This year, along with the Department of Defense, we will be hearing from the Department of Veterans Affairs, so that we can get VA’s perspective on the long-lasting impacts of PFAS exposure on veterans and their families and hopefully provide clarity on how veterans can navigate the VA when they are struggling with health effects related to PFAS exposure.

For decades, PFAS chemicals were used in a variety of industrial and consumer applications. 

Notably, PFAS chemicals were and continue to be used in large quantities on military bases in the form of firefighting foams, otherwise known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. Our military performs training exercises with AFFF to practice suppressing potent fires caused by aircraft fuel. 

This usage caused decades of cascading harms that few – except producers like 3M – could have seen coming.  The toxic chemicals in the foam seeped into the ground and insidiously spread throughout nearby communities, tainted nearby farmland, and even penetrated groundwater supplies.

Most perniciously, dangerous quantities of these chemicals have been absorbed into the bloodstreams of the brave souls who signed up to serve this country in our Armed Forces.

They signed up to defend this country from its enemies; they never signed up to absorb toxic contamination.  And they certainly never signed up to volunteer their families for exposure to these toxic chemicals.

And this story has an even darker, more infuriating side: Long has there been evidence to support a causal link between exposure to PFAS chemicals and serious health problems including cancer, as well as thyroid, reproductive and developmental issues.  And yet, for decades, across administrations of both parties, little to no action has been taken by the U.S. government. 

Much of that inaction can be traced to the decades-long campaign of subterfuge and deception propagated by producers like the 3M Company and DuPont.

As far back as 1950, studies conducted by 3M showed that these chemicals could build up in our blood. By the 1960s, animal studies conducted by 3M and DuPont revealed that PFAS chemicals could pose health risks. But the companies kept the studies secret from their employees and the public for decades and even refused to hand over internal documentation of these adverse health effects until forced to do so by the courts.

In 1966, the federal Food and Drug Administration rejected a DuPont petition to use PFAS chemicals as a food additive, citing liver studies – indicating some government agencies knew of its health risks. 

The U.S. Navy began to raise serious concerns about the potential toxicity of firefighting foams and its harmful effects decades ago, noting in 1978 that , quote, “the 3M Company has not provided any useful information about the components of FC206,” which is one of 3M’s firefighting foams.  

Beginning in the early 2000s, major corporations, many of which supplied the chemical to DOD, began to halt the use and production of PFAS due to growing concerns by the scientific and healthcare communities. 

In January of 2009, the EPA released a Provisional Health Advisory warning of exposure to PFAS chemicals. 

And in 2016, the EPA went further in issuing a Lifetime Health Advisory, warning that concentrated PFOS and PFOA in drinking water was suspected of causing serious health concerns. Unfortunately, this advisory was merely that – EPA chose not to incorporate a real enforcement mechanism. 

The Department of Defense waited until 2016, after decades of concern over exposure to PFAS, before it finally began to clean up these harmful chemicals. 

However, the Department is still not doing enough. Citing “lack of evidence”, DoD has been slow to spend and execute hundreds of millions of congressionally appropriated cleanup funds.

Let me be clear: There IS solid, scientific evidence that PFAS exposure is harmful to human health and the environment. 

The EPA states on its website: “There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. PFAS stays in the human body for long periods of time. As a result, as people get exposed to PFAS from different sources over time, the level of PFAS in their bodies may increase to the point where they suffer from adverse health effects.”

HHS’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released a draft toxicological profile of PFAS in 2018, after it was discovered that the Trump administration was delaying its release.  The report included hundreds of pages of evidence that explained that the U.S. government had not taken this problem seriously enough, and that EPA’s health advisory level was likely set far too high.

As more and more evidence comes to light of the serious, long-term side effects of PFAS, we need quick and efficient remediation, and a thorough, comprehensive healthcare approach for our veterans and the communities who were exposed. 

It is past time that federal agencies start being honest with impacted communities, servicemembers, veterans, and their families about the scope of the problem and explain the work needed to be done to address not only the cleanup of this toxin, but also the health and environmental reparations required. 

It’s also long past time for these agencies to issue enforceable rules to stop the spread of this contamination.  Even more, DOD needs to expedite the replacement of toxic AFFF on military installations where they are still in use today.

This subcommittee is committed to doing our part in a larger, whole-of-government approach to invest in these critical cleanup and healthcare efforts. 

I am proud that the appropriations bill we passed last year provided an additional $100 million for PFAS identification, mitigation, and cleanup at closed military locations under our BRAC account.  

As a proud member of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, I was also pleased to vote for the PFAS Action Act: a comprehensive approach to regulating PFAS chemicals, cleaning up contamination, and protecting public health.

Today’s witnesses will help tell the story of PFAS at our military bases and the impact that it has had on the environment, surrounding communities, and those who served.

Our first panel will feature Mr. Paul Cramer, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment (Installations) at the Department of Defense. He is accompanied by Mr. Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Environment, Safety and Infrastructure, and Dr. Terry Rauch, the Director of Medical Research and Development, also at the Department of Defense. 

Also, as part of our first panel, we will have Dr. Patricia R. Hastings, Chief Consultant of Post Deployment Health Services, Veterans Health Administration, at the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

These witnesses today will be able to give us a progress report on the ongoing efforts to clean up contamination, the ongoing research being conducted, and hopefully explain why these two Departments are not doing more to respond to the crisis in an expeditious way.
I am particularly interested in hearing how this new administration will approach PFAS differently and hopefully mark a clean break from the lackadaisical approach of the previous administration.

Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ perspective is vital, because our commitment to protecting servicemembers does not end when they step off a base.

We have a responsibility to our veterans to address the injuries and illnesses they suffered as a result of their military service – whether it is a blast injury from combat, or repeated exposure to toxic firefighting foam. 

VA is uniquely positioned to track, study, and treat conditions that may have been caused by PFAS exposure, yet PFAS has not received the focus at VA that it deserves.

The comprehensive research and clinical services that VA can provide through its environmental exposure programs could make it far easier for veterans and doctors to understand exposure-related health conditions, as well as prove a service connection, opening the door for veterans to receive so many other VA benefits. 

I am eager to discuss how we can better use the power of VA to make a difference for the many servicemembers affected by PFAS exposure. 

Our second panel will feature two leaders in addressing PFAS contamination, Dr. Jamie DeWitt, an expert on PFAS contamination and an Associate Professor of the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at East Carolina University.  

And Ms. Erin Brockovich, an environmental activist, consumer advocate, and longtime champion of PFAS cleanup and public education on harmful contaminants. 

They will discuss the impacts of PFAS on individual health, as well as the surrounding communities and the environment at large, highlighting why action on this issue is so important. 

Thank you all for being here this afternoon, and we look forward to hearing your testimony.

117th Congress