LEGISLATURE: Indiana environmentalists, manufacturers at odds over bill to protect toxic PFAS chemicals

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Firefighter turnout gear hangs from hooks at Columbus Fire Station No. 2 in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. The Columbus Fire Department has started to replace their old turnout which may contain toxic PFAS chemicals with Fire-Dex TECHGEN turnout gear. The Fire-Dex gear does not contain PFAS chemicals.

By Casey Smith | Indiana Capital Chronicle

For The Republic

INDIANAPOLIS — Environmental advocates sounded alarms at the Indiana Statehouse on Monday over a bill that would change the definition of toxic PFAS chemicals to exempt those which Hoosier manufacturers want to keep using.

HB 1399 seeks to carve out more than 5,000 “forever chemicals” from being defined as such by the state and its environmental rules board.

That means chemicals deemed harmful in other states would no longer carry the same designation in Indiana. Critics said the legislation could allow products that contain the toxic chemicals to be “wrongly” labeled as “PFAS-free.”

The bill was heard in the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee and drew nearly three hours of testimony and discussion. A vote was not held Monday but could take place next week.

Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper. (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans) 

PFAS are used to make a variety of nonstick, waterproof and stain-resistant products like cookware, cosmetics, carpets and clothing, including gear worn by firefighters. Among other things, exposure to the chemicals has been linked to kidney cancer, problems with the immune system and developmental issues in children.

Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said “it’s not appropriate” to regulate all PFAS the same, though.

“We must be mindful that a number of industries utilize PFAS chemistries,” he said, mentioning the mining, building construction, drug manufacturing, biotech, energy and technology sectors as examples.

“The bill is designed to preserve the potential uses for these products and uses while focusing on future potential regulatory efforts on the PFAS chemistries that are of potential concern,” Messmer continued.

Proponents of the bill, which includes many in the chemical manufacturing industry, say the change is needed to preserve uses of PFAS in “essential” items like lithium batteries, laptop computers, semiconductors, pacemakers and defibrillators. Even so, state regulators have yet to propose a prohibition on those uses.

“If the bill doesn’t pass, nothing happens — we go back to business as usual. But if it does, it opens up the door to a lot of potential issues,” said Marta Venier, a professor and environmental chemist at Indiana University. “Think about the broader picture and the long term effects that passing the bill can have. We’re thinking about the benefits of bringing a few more jobs. But let’s also think about the hidden costs of the use of PFAS, which are the health effects that, actually, taxpayers are paying through all the costs of remediation of water.”

Exposing Hoosiers to ‘dangerous’ chemicals

The proposal seeks to proactively exempt the chemicals in case state or federal regulators try to ban them in the future. It previously passed out of the House in a 64-30 vote, along party lines.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances commonly called “forever chemicals,” as “widely used, long lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time” — to the tune of thousands of years.

During production and use, PFAS can migrate into the soil, water and air. Because of their widespread presence, many PFAS are found globally in the blood of people and animals. The chemicals are also present at low levels in a variety of food and consumer products.

But numerous scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS is dangerous to human and animal health, causing reproductive issues, immune system suppression, organ damage and endocrine disruption.

(Image from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) 

Venier said Indiana already has a “perfectly good definition of PFAS.” Changes proposed in the bill “have not been approved by the scientific community.”

“We want batteries, we want medical devices. Yes, we all want all of that. We are not saying that we should remove (PFAS chemicals). We’re just saying to not change the definition of PFAS,” Venier said, noting lawmakers could instead grant exemptions for particular PFAS chemicals and uses.

University of Notre Dame professor Graham Peaslee, recognized in Monday’s committee as another nationally recognized PFAS expert, further warned that PFAS chemicals are “very hard to remove from the environment once they’re there.”

PFAS “hotspots” — created when manufacturing activities leach chemicals into local water sources — have “tremendous” cleanup costs that are largely borne by taxpayers, he said.

“If this bill has its intended purpose … we’ll get another company here that is trying to avoid the wastewater regulations in California by moving to Indiana, bringing us some jobs. But what will that cost us?” Peaslee asked. “It will cost us if they put more pollution into the water or into our irrigation water or into our foods. It will cost us not only public health … but it will cost us dollars to clean it up.”

“At the moment, we are going to need more dollars than we’ve ever spent on any other cleanup,” he continued. “Think about that money we’re spending on lead right now. … Any more PFAS we put into the state will take forever to get out. It just doesn’t go away.”

Although most who testified on the bill — both for and against — agreed that “essential” uses of PFAS should be exempt until better alternatives are available, environmental advocates argued for lawmakers to adopt specific exemptions in the current law, rather than changing the definition of thousands of other PFAS chemicals.

The bill’s author, Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, said earlier in the legislative session that the bill is written in a way so lawmakers don’t have to add exceptions to the law every year.

But Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, maintained “there is an urgent need to reduce human exposure to PFAS.”

“Other states are looking for efficient and effective ways to reduce the use of toxic chemicals to protect the public’s health, led by firefighters, farmers and families with children. Indiana is going to do the opposite,” said Bauer, who last year led a successful effort to pass legislation aimed at protecting firefighters from PFAS chemicals used in protective equipment.

Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, added that the bill appears to be a solution seeking a problem.

Industry wants continued PFAS use

But Andrianna Moehle, with the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said there aren’t good alternatives for PFAS in manufacturing essential items like medical devices and pharmaceuticals, as well as in the automotive and steel industries.

“This definition (in the bill) ensures a robust, stable and domestic supply chain remains intact,” she said.

Moehle noted, too, that although Indiana is unlikely to ban PFAS chemicals, “it’s a given” that the federal government will require states to regulate PFAS, “and we want to be prepared.”

“Manufacturers prefer to operate in environments of certainty and predictability because we plan for investments years down the road. And our investments consist of technology and facilities that are not able to be moved easily, therefore making regulatory certainty and predictability of utmost importance and the reason that we need this bill now,” Moehle said. Having this definition in place ensures that future regulations use the proper definition without unintended consequences.”

Steve Risotto, with the American Chemistry Council, defends a House Bill dealing with the definition of PFAs chemicals. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle) 

Three representatives from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) — an industry trade association for chemical companies — also testified Monday in support of the bill. They maintained a focus on “future regulatory efforts” of select PFAS chemicals “that have been shown to cause adverse health effects.”

“Not all PFAS chemistries are the same, and therefore, it’s not appropriate to regulate them all the same,” said Mathew Norris, speaking on behalf of the ACC. This bill strikes the right balance by focusing on those PFAS chemistries that are most likely to cause adverse health effects, while preserving products and uses that are vital to Hoosiers and Hoosier industries.”

Steve Risotto, also with the chemistry council, said universally, not all PFAS chemicals pose risks to humans “because you are talking about thousands of chemistries, many of which don’t break down in the body.”

He clarified that the group does not, however, “advocate widespread release of these products.”

“We encourage our companies to control their releases to the greatest extent possible … because it is the right thing to do,” Risotto said.

The bill has also received support from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Indiana corn and soybean growers.

—  The Indiana Capital Chronicle covers state government and the state legislature. For more, visit indianacapitalchronicle.com.