WATCH: Sen. Kelly Questions EPA Administrator on Arizona Water Safety

In an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing yesterday, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly raised questions about Environment Protection Agency (EPA) water testing and its potential effect on Arizona communities. Kelly expressed concerns about new EPA health advisories and their impact on clean water in the state, especially as the Southwest is in the midst of a mega-drought.

“We need to figure out how we are going to clean up this water,” said Kelly during the hearing. “The drought situation we’re facing in Arizona right now is so critical that at some point here in the near future some communities are going to be reliant on ground water, and we’ve got to make sure that water is clean.”

During the hearing, Dr. Michal Freedhoff, EPA Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, testified about implementation of amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation’s primary chemicals management law. Kelly asked her about EPA’s work to prevent the spread of PFAS chemicals, which are manufactured substances that can build up in the environment over time.

Kelly addresses EPA Administrator Freedhoff at the EPW hearing.

In the Senate, Kelly has maintained a focus on addressing water concerns in Arizona. Last week, Kelly defended Arizona’s water rights in a Senate hearing on drought restrictions. He also helped draft western water legislation in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, and proposed a bill to protect Arizona communities from Federal fees for dams that aren’t generating hydropower due to the drought. Kelly has worked to tackle the unique water and wastewater challenges facing Arizona, and was a member of the bipartisan group that drafted the drinking water and western water portions of the bipartisan infrastructure law. 

Read a transcript of Senator Kelly’s remarks below, and watch his full remarks HERE.

Kelly: Thank you. Mr. Chairman. Dr. Freedhoff, thank you for being here today. And I want to begin by discussing the latest drinking water advisory level for PFAS chemicals, and how that impacts the work done by your office to develop national strategies for PFAS testing and tracking PFAS which are still in use.

So as you know, the last week the EPA updated the lifetime health advisories for two of the most pervasive PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, from 70 parts per trillion to four parts per quadrillion for PFOA and 20 parts per quadrillion for PFAS. These updated guidelines are significant for the more than 20 communities in Arizona which have recorded levels of PFAS at or above these levels.

And as I understand it, so we don’t have testing technology which can detect PFAS in quadrillions yet, meaning many more communities could also be vulnerable, more than the 20 in Arizona. So Dr. Freedhoff, I understand that your office is responsible for developing a national strategy to test for PFAS. How do the new lifetime health advisories affect that work?

Dr. Freedhoff: Well thanks very much for that question Senator Kelly. I think, so our testing strategy is really about the thousands of PFAS that we don’t know enough about to write health advisories or regulate in some way. Because as you know there were thousands that were allowed into commerce, over, you know, that were historically made or used in this country. And if we try to study them one by one by one by one, we will never get the answers that we need in order to tell us, in order to take action on the ones that need action taken on. So what we did was we divided those thousands of PFAS into categories based on their structure and other chemical properties, looked at the categories for which we had no health information, cause that’s clearly the most important question, is what does this type of PFAS do to your body if you’re exposed. And we’re designing a testing strategy designed to fill in those data gaps. So our first test order went out a couple weeks ago, it’s for a PFAS that’s found in firefighting foam and other products, and when we get the data back for that chemical it will, help us understand more about the human health effects of 500 other PFAS that are similar to it. So, I think there’s not exactly a connection between health advisories and our testing strategy but our testing strategy is designed to, to fill in the holes on human health data that exist for so many PFAS.

Kelly: And are you confident you’re going to be able to develop the tests necessary to detect in the quadrillions?

Dr. Freedhoff: We’re not, we’re not testing that way. What we’re doing is we’re, we’re using our authority under TSCA to tell companies to give us information and data about the chemical. So, sometimes it’s doing modeling to show us, you know, what its effect would be. Other times it might be animal testing if we need to pursue animal testing. Other times it’s information about whether the chemical dissolves in water, and would therefore be likely to be in drinking water.

Kelly: So then my understanding is as we test drinking water, we’re still going to be testing in the parts per trillion. And the only way we’re going to know if somebody is exceeding the lifetime health limit in the quadrillions will be on the data you get from companies that manufacture these chemicals.

Dr. Freedhoff: I think it’s a different, so it’s a slightly different question. So I think, sort of taking a step back, you know, I think EPA has historically written a couple hundred different health advisories for drinking water over the years. And for information on these particular ones, I would say that the office of water probably has more answers than I have. But I think that one way to think about it is, is the lead rules. Because it’s generally accepted that there’s no safe level of lead, and so the goal for lead in drinking water is zero.

Kelly: Yeah. I got you.

Dr. Freedhoff: But the rules are what factor in the detection levels, like how to detect it and how to treat it and how to remove it. And I think that’s what you’ll see, I think that’s sort of the difference between a health advisory for PFAS and a rule for PFAS.

Kelly: I got it, and I’m going to have my office follow up with you on this to make sure that. You know these 20 communities, we know that the level is above what you just set the lifetime health advisory for, so we need to figure out how are we going to clean up this water. The drought situation we’re facing in Arizona right now is so critical that at some point here, in the near future some communities are going to be reliant on ground water, and we’ve got to make sure that water is clean. So thank you. And thank you, Mr. Chairman.