Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick planning bill to force PFC health study
Freshman Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, of Middletown, stated Friday he intends to introduce a bill to pay for a “comprehensive” health study for area residents affected by PFOA and PFOS drinking water contamination. The legislation would also aim to reimburse local water authorities for the purchase of clean water.
A subject of ongoing investigation by this news organization, the unregulated chemicals were found in 2014 to have contaminated the drinking water supplies of at least 70,000 residents in Bucks and Montgomery counties. The chemicals originated in firefighting foams used at a trio of military bases in the area. Public water supplies have since been cleaned, but there is ongoing concern about whether the presence of the chemicals may have harmed the health of affected residents.
Fitzpatrick stated his intentions in a letter to Bucks County Commissioner Charles Martin. Last month, Martin and Dr. David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department, were asked by this news organization about blood tests and health studies for affected residents. Damsker initially stated that he did not believe blood tests would be beneficial because residents and their doctors would be unable to act on testing results, but later clarified that he would support a health study if conducted by the federal government. Asked for comment, Martin stated that the commissioners were following the situation and were waiting for a federal or state agency to take action on a health study, but Martin did not offer an opinion on the value of blood testing.
In his letter to Martin, Fitzpatrick said while he agrees that blood testing may not be medically useful at this time, he does believe they should be provided to residents.
“In my opinion, basic testing and monitoring of (military) base employees and local residents is necessary to evaluate and monitor the long-term effects of water contamination, particularly given the evolving nature of research on PFOA and PFOS,” wrote Fitzpatrick, whose congressional district includes part of Bucks and Montgomery counties. “To that extent, the Department of Defense should be required to provide funding for a comprehensive (health study) on PFOS and PFOA.”
Since the contamination was discovered in 2014, the Navy and Air National Guard have agreed to pay at least $19 million to put filtration systems on 16 contaminated public water wells in Warminster, Warrington and Horsham. The money is also funding the connection of more than 200 residences that rely on private, contaminated water wells to the public systems, and providing bottled water to those residences in the meantime.
To determine which public and private wells are contaminated, the military is using a 70 parts per trillion limit recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, the safety of that number is disputed by some researchers and the three affected water companies have passed plans to filter the chemicals down to undetectable levels by purchasing and piping in large quantities of water from neighboring suppliers.
The military has not agreed to pay for those purchases, the costs of which run into the millions of dollars annually, forcing the water authorities to push the costs onto their customers.
“The Department of Defense must fund the cleanup and remediation efforts of PFOS and PFOA,” Fitzpatrick wrote, adding that his bill would also “provide funding … to improve the remediation process for our community.”
In addition to the multimillion dollar cost of water purchases, a health study could come with an even heftier price tag. In 2016, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said he also supported a blood testing program but estimated it would cost at least $7 million to test the blood of only half of the current population, let alone past residents or military members. A blood testing program and comprehensive health study conducted on a similar-sized population in the Mid-Ohio Valley ended up costing more than $100 million.
Officials with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a department of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have said they are assessing the possibility of conducting a nationwide PFOA and PFOS health study that could include Pennsylvania residents by working in tandem with the state health department. However, details of the agency’s review have not been made available.
This news organization filed a Freedom of Information Act request to review the ATSDR’s correspondence regarding blood testing for PFOA and PFOS in Pennsylvania. The CDC/ATSDR Freedom of Information Act Office is searching for and collecting records, and has granted the company's appeal for expedited processing of the request, based on the urgency to inform the public about blood testing in the area.
Even if a study were found to be possible, the ATSDR has said it does not have the funds necessary to conduct it and has not identified a funding source.
"They're very complicated endeavors,” ATSDR regional director Lora Werner said last year of health studies. “It would (be up to) either the Navy or Congress to make a decision about that kind of funding.”
The Navy has previously balked at paying for blood tests or a health study.
Fitzpatrick wrote that “the process and funding (for a health study and remediation) must be streamlined to clarify the roles,” of state and federal agencies.
“Our public water supply is not a political issue, and I will pursue federal action to ensure our residents have the safest water possible,” Fitzpatrick wrote.
The letter did not offer any specifics on where the funds might come from; Fitzpatrick’s office said further details will be made available in the coming weeks.
In 2016, a trio of area congressmen and U.S. Senator Bob Casey attempted to win funding for blood tests and other local remediation efforts during annual budgeting processes. Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
Efforts at the state level to force the federal government to do more have also borne no fruit to date. However, state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-144, of Warrington, said late last year she intends to introduce a bill that uses a new approach. Watson offered further details Friday, saying the bill would designate the chemicals as hazardous substances under state law, giving leverage to the state and local governments to force the military to take a more aggressive action and potentially open the door for lawsuits.
"It would give us one more tool in the toolbox," Watson said, adding that she intends to start shopping the bill to her colleagues in the state House in late March.
Watson added that she's consumed area drinking water for 38 years and believes the military is dragging its feet and allowing pollution to continue in area waterways.
"We are not bio-filters for the Navy and Air National Guard," she said.