Skip to main content

Sparks fly as Congress queries industry on PFAS chemicals

Representative Harley Rouda
Representative Harley Rouda (CA – 48)

“I’ve listened to the personal testimonies of mothers, fathers, and children whose lives are irreparably damaged by their toxic products. 3M’s corporate-speak and refusal to acknowledge their role in creating birth defects and cancer diagnoses is a slap in the face.”

–Harley Rouda (CA-48) Chair, Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment

Chairman Rouda’s statement punctuated a remarkable afternoon of testimony about the “forever” chemicals that have polluted water supplies across the country. At its third hearing on PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), the committee heard from attorney Rob Bilott, whose litigation on behalf of residents of Parkersburg, WV, has led to greater understanding of the health effects of PFAS chemicals, and from former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who won an $890 million settlement from 3M for its pollution in that state. Later, in scenes that were all too reminiscent of tobacco industry CEOs maintaining in Congressional testimony that nicotine was not addictive, the committee questioned officials from the “new DuPont”, 3M, and Chemours, the company to which “old DuPont” spun off its PFAS business in 2016.

A recurring point of contention in the hearing was the 3M senior vice president of corporate affairs Denise Rutherford’s claim that there is not enough evidence to tie PFAS to the current public health crisis, while noting that since 3M stopped manufacturing and using PFOS and PFOA in the 1990s, with other companies following suit, data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that the levels of PFOS and PFOA in people have declined by at least 70%.

3M senior vice president of corporate affairs Denise Rutherford testifies
Denise Rutherford, 3M Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs

“We at 3M have studied the potential impacts of PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, for decades, as have many other outside researchers. Importantly, the weight of scientific evidence has not established that PFOS, PFOA, or other PFAS cause adverse human health effects.”

–3M senior vice president of corporate affairs Denise Rutherford

As House and Senate conferees begin to reconcile the two chambers’ military spending bills, which have different timetables for ending the military’s use of PFAS-based firefighting foam, it was good news to hear that DuPont will end its use of such foams at its facilities by 2021. Notable in the DuPont testimony were repeated commitments to take responsibility for contamination at sites it currently owns and operates and a commitment to stop using PFAS-based firefighting foam at its facilities worldwide by 2021.

Dary Roberts testifies before Congress
Daryl Roberts, Chief Operations & Engineering Officer, DuPont de Nemours, Inc.

“We do not manufacture or sell firefighting foams. However, like countless other companies, we purchase firefighting foams for protection at our facilities. We are committed to ending all use of PFAS firefighting foams at our facilities by the end of 2021. We have also reaffirmed our commitment to not make, buy, or use long-chain PFAS materials. Consistent with that, we will eliminate, by the end of this year, our limited use of long-chain PFAS in recently integrated operations, which is the only instance where we use it today.”

— DuPont chief operations and engineering officer Daryl Roberts

Questioned by the committee’s ranking member James Comer (KY-1) about the effectiveness of PFAS-free firefighting foams, DuPont’s chief operations and engineering officer Daryl Roberts reiterated the company’s commitment to move to safer alternatives, noting that the company is already using other foams in training exercises. Noting that the new foams are “just as effective” as PFAS-based foams, Roberts said that DuPont would be working to “develop a roadmap” with other companies to end one of the largest sources of PFAS contamination.

In 2015, DuPont spun off its PFAS chemicals business to a new company, Chemours, which is now suing DuPont for allegedly understating the potential liability for those chemicals that it passed along. Questioned about designating PFAS chemicals as hazardous under the Superfund law as a House amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would do, DuPont supported the designation of PFOA and PFOS, and perhaps other “long-chain” PFAS chemicals,  while Chemours and 3M demurred, saying that the EPA should follow its own process.

Representative Dan Kildee
Representative Dan Kildee (MI- 5)

Rep. Dan Kildee (MI- 5) summed up the companies’ testimony:

“This is ridiculous. We have companies that have benefited and made millions and billions of dollars selling these products into commerce who now want to point the finger at someone else, or say ‘we’re not going to produce these chemicals anymore, but believe me there’s no science that says they’re not safe.’  There’s plenty of science that says these are dangerous. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have taken them off the market in the first place.”

Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz
Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL-23)

After asking the companies repeatedly if they support designating PFAS chemicals as hazardous under Superfund, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL-23) ended her questioning of DuPont, Chemours and 3M officials by saying:

“You have sickened our first responders and our members of our military and I don’t know how you sleep at night.”