Flint Rep. Dan Kildee On The 'Ubiquitous' Water Contaminant The Administration Tried to Play Down
TPM first reported on per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – an umbrella class of chemicals found in military grade firefighting foam, but also in thousands of consumer goods – in May, when reporters and congressional staffers were kept out of an EPA summit on how local, tribal and state governments were dealing with the contaminant, which accumulates in ground water.
Scientists have long warned of the carcinogenic properties of PFAS, and of thyroid and fertility issues the contaminants can cause, among a slew of other concerns. In February, the state of Minnesota and 3M agreed on a $850 million settlement to address PFAS contamination, and suits over PFAS contamination are now widespread.
In June, the CDC finally published a long-awaited draft study on PFAS; its conclusion, in short, was that PFAS are hazardous at much lower levels than the EPA had previously claimed. In May, Politico revealed that the Trump administration had sought to delay that study’s publication, with one staffer calling it a “public relations nightmare” in an email.
One lawmaker familiar with government officials treating widespread water contamination as a ‘public relations nightmare” is Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who represents Flint, Michigan in Congress. Kildee’s district also includes the PFAS-contaminated community of Oscoda.
Earlier this month, TPM interviewed Kildee over the phone about the current state of PFAS legislation at the federal level – there is still no enforceable national standard- and his efforts to hold one of the biggest federal perpetrators of PFAS contamination, the Air Force, accountable.
We’ve edited for length and clarity and added annotations where they could be helpful.
TPM: What are your priorities going forward on addressing these water quality issues now that Democrats have a majority?
REP. DAN KILDEE: We’ve been working on a lot of this in the absence of a majority, so the hope is that a lot of what we’ve already proposed will have much more steam as a result of being in the majority.
I think one of the first ways to deal with this is for the federal government to accept its own responsibility, not only as a protector of public health, although that’s obviously critical, but as a responsible party. Through the Defense Department, the federal government has created a real serious problem with PFAS. The situation become known to me as a result of the contamination of drinking water in wells in Oscoda, Michigan, which is at the northern tip of my district.
And so we’ve been pushing really hard on the federal government, but specifically on the Defense Department, more specifically on the Air Force: Just take responsibility for the problems that we cause that community by cleaning it up and providing health support of people impacted by PFAS contamination
The Air Force did not respond to TPM’s request for comment regarding the state of PFAS testing and clean-up around current and former bases.
I think that it’s responsible, number one, but I think it also strengthens the federal government’s legitimacy when it comes to the other aspect of our agenda, which is all about protecting public health regardless of who the polluter might be.
We need far stronger regulations, and if I could digress only for a second: You know, there’s all this happy talk from the Trump administration and from their allies about eliminating regulations. But this is an example of what we’re talking about.
Do they mean eliminating protections from PFAS in surface water and in drinking water? Do they mean elimination enforcement of the lead and copper rule, which is designed to protect people around the country from experiencing what we have dealt with here in Flint, Michigan, my hometown, where I sit right now?
The EPA did not respond to TPM’s request for comment regarding its stance on a potential nationwide PFAS standard.
TPM: We could break it down into two buckets, testing and clean-up. I’ve seen the maps of the military installations nationwide that are affected by these contaminants. And I saw that you secured funding for testing at some military installations nationwide.
Read Kildee’s statement on the funds here.
What is the state of testing for these chemicals at military installations? How much do we actually know about where water is contaminated?
KILDEE: We have the logic that says anywhere there was AFFF, the firefighting foam that includes PFAS, used, we will find PFAS.
The foam is widely used by the military and at civilian airports. Here’s a video of it in action.
And so there is a sort-of Phase 1 analysis that could be done pretty easily, and that’s just to determine where the firefighting foam was used. We’re going to find PFAS there.
And just to be clear, the support that we were able to get in the 2019 budget was specific to [Base Realignment and Closure] bases. You know, the base reduction sites.
The BRAC process is what the military uses to close or otherwise “reorganize” military instillations.
We did that because this is where our problem is, in Oscoda, and we’re particularly concerned that the military is less likely for sites that they no longer own and operate than the ones where we still have active operations. So we’ve been pushing hard on that.
But it gets to your question: We think that the federal government has an affirmative obligation to get to the bottom of this and test, even if there’s been no indication of a problem. Because the PFAS – you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
TPM: In the past several months, have you found the Air Force to be more cooperative with this issue as it’s gotten more publicity? Where do they stand on this?
KILDEE: They have not been nearly as responsible as we would like them to be. I think – I’ve had some conversations. I spoke to the secretary of the Air Force [about] two weeks ago to push specifically for clean up in my district, where we were able to get resources in the budget. I was the one who got the money included. I want this clean-up in my district. So I’ve been pushing on that.
But to answer your question more specifically, they haven’t been particularly responsive. And I don’t accept that. I will say this. It’s not that I don’t understand it. I just don’t accept it. I understand it because their problem is a big problem. But pretending it’s not there isn’t going to solve it. And so I’m pushing the Air Force to tell Congress the truth about the size of this problem, and that’s been my frustration.
TPM: We covered a summit the EPA held a few months ago at which journalists and some of your staffers weren’t allowed in.
The EPA argued that the summit did not qualify as a “federal advisory committee” event, which would have required public access, and instead referred to it as an opportunity “for EPA’s state, tribal, and federal government partners and national organizations to share a range of individual perspectives.”
Do you expect that you’ll pursue it in Democrats’ oversight capacity now that you’re in the majority? What happened with that?
KILDEE: We did ask the inspector general of the EPA if any laws had been broken, and response that we got was that they didn’t find that there had been any federal law violated. But clearly, the spirit of the law was not adhered to. So we may address that. But I think it gets to the larger problem, and that is that the instinct of the EPA has been to minimize the threat.
For example, the EPA stalled on the release of the ATSDR [the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] study, which they could have released at any point in time, because they didn’t want, basically, the public to be aware of the potential threat that PFAS represents. They were fairly clear that they – they use other terms, but they’ll talk about not wanting people to panic.
TPM: They said it was a public relations disaster, right?
KILDEE: Well, yeah, I mean, I have a lot of experience with government treating large-scale poisoning first as a public relations problem. That’s what the state of Michigan did when it came to Flint’s water crisis. They were more concerned about circling that wagons to protect themselves than they were about keeping lead for getting into the bodies of children.
A spokesperson for outgoing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder told TPM in a statement: Gov. Snyder has worked tirelessly to secure more than $400 million in state and federal funding to assist with Flint’s recovery after all levels of government failed the residents by allowing lead contamination to occur in their water system. He has always been focused on helping Flint move forward by taking real action rather than playing political public relations games. In the case of PFAS, Gov. Snyder’s efforts establishing the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team have been so successful that Michigan is now held up as a national model for other states to use when they address this nationally emerging contaminant in their area. That’s an important role for us to play, since it is up to the states to address this contamination – much of which is coming from its use by federal agencies – because the federal bureaucracy and Congress have been too slow to react.
And with the EPA, they seem more concerned about the managing the public relations aspect of this than being honest about what the report was going to show. Of course, what that report showed is that this stuff is a lot more dangerous than it was previously thought to be.
So their instinct is not based on their mission, their instinct is based on protecting their agency and minimizing the work they have to do.
TPM: And it’s still the case that there’s no national ceiling for PFAS in water. Is that correct? I saw there were a few efforts to introduce on by Kristen Gillibrand and others. Do you think House Democrats will pursue that, a national standard for PFAS?
KILDEE: Yes. As it stands right now, you’re right, there’s a health advisory, which by itself is obsolete, because it indicates 70 parts-per-trillion [ppt] as the safe standard when the ATSDR study itself, depending on the form that it takes, shows the PFAS levels that would be within the safe range could be as much as one tenth of that 70 ppt.
So we have a couple of pieces of legislation, one that I’ve done with Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) from Pennsylvania, which may be a mirror image to the Senate bill, that requires a national drinking water standard for PFAS. PFAS is obviously most dangerous when it’s in drinking water, because it’s ingested and it’s cumulative in terms of its impact, so that’s pretty important.
And there’s some other bill we would push. There’s some legislation that a group of us introduced that requires federal agencies that cause contamination to come up with a plan of action in conjunction with that states that they sit in. But the most important piece of it is to have an enforceable standard, and that’s why this bill that we’ve introduced hopefully will see movement soon after the first of the year.
TPM: I wanted to conclude with your experience with Flint and the public relations aspect of this, and how it interacts with politics. Donald Trump’s line on the EPA is, basically, “I don’t like it, except for clean water”. So Democrats may have an opening to make this an actual issue, and say, “Well, if you’re serious about protecting America’s water quality, do something about this.” But I was wondering more broadly, with your experience as Flint’s congressman, what have you learned about communicating water quality issues to the public, and making them a matter of political pressure?
KILDEE: I think the most important thing that affects this issue is knowledge, is information. People will demand action if they know the threat they face. So in Flint, it was the citizens of Flint that gave voice to their own concerns, and gave me the strength to go to Congress and say, we’ve got to do something about this. I mean, they heard me saying about it all along. When I brought members of Congress along to Flint, and they heard Flint families, or when I invited Flint families to come to Washington and meet with my colleagues, there was no way to look at those families and tell them that their fears are not real. There’s no way to look at them in the eye and tell them that they shouldn’t worry.
The problem that we have right now, in terms of the way the federal government is handling these things, is they’re not being honest with people. They’re not telling them the facts they need to have to protect themselves. And I’m pretty confident that if people know what the situation is, that they’ll demand action, and that, it may not be as fast we’d like, but that the government will ultimately act.
The thing about PFAS, where it’s a little bit different than the lead issue: The problem is more serious in older cities. For example, it’s more serious in cities that have not been able to reinvest in infrastructure. So if you’re poor, you’re much more likely to deal with lead than otherwise.
But PFAS is ubiquitous and nobody cares about partisanship. Nobody cares who’s in charge of the government if they think they’re being threatened by an environmental issue. They just want to have something done, and when I meet people in Oscoda, they don’t care about politics. They don’t care about Democrats and Republicans. They don’t care about who’s in the White House or who’s in the majority in Congress, they just want us to do something about this problem because it’s threatening their lives. Literally, threatening their lives.
TPM: That, to me, is the main question. It’s so interesting to me to see the urgency with which the issue is treated on local newscast, and in lawsuits brought by individual plaintiffs or state attorneys general. But I wonder what will make this into the national story that, in my opinion, it needs to be?
KILDEE: Let me just give one little anecdote, because I think it tells you the story of what we’re up against. I was able to get an amendment that was passed into law a couple of months ago. It was an amendment to the FAA reauthorization. This tells you what we’re up against, and that there are actually interests that, as hard as it is to believe, would push back against dealing with this PFAS question.
The amendment that I was able to have written into law eliminated that requirement that airports use PFAS-laced foam for all firefighting. It was not even a matter of it not being legal, or outlawing it, we just eliminating the requirement that this particular formulation be included in airport-based firefighting foam. I mean, the idea that is so dangerous is not so hard to sell, but until our amendment passed, the federal government was actually requiring airports to use this stuff, wouldn’t let them use anything. So it’s like an order to pollute. It’s just bizarre.