Legislature defies governor on tainted water bill; Adelup, Republican caucus criticize delay and ‘lack of urgency’

Legislative session (PNC file photo)

The Legislature met briefly in special session Monday afternoon but recessed after a few minutes without tackling Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s revised Prutehi I Hanom Act of 2019, voting instead to have the bill undergo a public hearing first.

The bill, which was earlier scheduled to be heard at 10 a.m. Monday morning, seeks to protect the waters of Guam by authorizing the acquisition of specialized legal services to assist in legal actions against the manufacture and use of perfluorinated chemicals, a group of more than 4,000 compounds collectively known as PFAS.

Many states and towns in the mainland have been taking legal action against the makers of PFAS for their roles in a nationwide drinking water contamination crisis. The lawsuit claims that the polluted water is the result of the manufacture and use of PFAS.

Reacting to the delay on her bill, the governor said the Legislature’s lack of urgency on the issue of PFAS is concerning because other jurisdictions have already begun the process of suing those responsible for the harm caused in their cities and states by PFAS contamination.

“We will continue to work closely with the Attorney General to seek options that will preserve our claims. Every delay on this effort threatens our ability to join the ongoing multi-district litigation, which is our best means of bringing justice to the people of Guam,” the governor said in a statement.

She added: “The Prutehi I Hanom Act of 2019 is intended to equip the Attorney General, who serves as the Government of Guam’s Chief Legal Officer, with the tools necessary to ensure that our interests are represented and our position advocated for in any litigation filed on our behalf. We thank Speaker Barnes, Senator Pedo Terlaje, and the Republican caucus for recognizing so clearly the urgency with which we must move on this issue.”

In an earlier letter to Speaker Tina Muna-Barnes, the governor emphasized that time was of the essence in authorizing the specialized legal services because the “window of opportunity” is even smaller than initially believed.

According to the governor, Adelup has further refined and edited its proposed bill, formerly Bill No. 1 (1-S) and now Bill No. 2 (1-S), by taking inputs from Sen. Therese Terlaje, who chairs the legislative committee on health, and Attorney General Leevin Camacho.

The Attorney General has already issued a brief statement on the matter: “The Office of the Attorney General is committed to take legal action when necessary to protect Guam’s natural resources. I concur with the Governor that prompt action is needed to identify legal experts and file suit to protect Guam’s water and residents from the harmful effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).”

According to the governor, the federal government knows that these chemicals have been used excessively at their military bases on Guam.

“There is no doubt that their use has detrimentally affected our island’s water sources. We must educate ourselves on the extent of damage caused by these said chemicals and identify those responsible,” the governor stated.

The governor also argued that the “emergency” nature of the situation justifies the lack of public hearing on the proposed bill.

But the Legislature voted 8 to 6 with one excused absence, in favor of taking up the governor’s bill at a later date.

Later, in an interview with Phill Leon Guerrero on K-57, Senator Therese Terlaje said the governor’s bill was already scheduled earlier for public hearing under the legislative committee on environment chaired by Sen. Sabina Perez.

She added that Aug. 4 is the deadline to add parties to existing class lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers so there is ample time for a public hearing to be conducted on the governor’s bill.

“It’s always good to have more information,” Terlaje said.

Senator Amanda Shelton echoed this, saying: “Public input is a valuable part of democracy. Clean water is vitally important for all our families but the will of the people is not served by leaving out their voices in the process. It’s not enough to do right, leaders must do it in the right way.”

The public hearing for the governor’s bill has been slated for Tuesday, July 9, at 8 a.m. in the Guam Congress Building.

GOP laments delay

In a complete reversal of voting along party lines, Republican senators Wil Castro, Telo Taitague, Louise Borja Muna, and James C. Moylan voted against delaying public discussion on the bill sent down by the governor.

According to the Republican senators, they agree with the governor’s statement that the “window of opportunity to assert our position” is small and requires swift decisive action.

“Immediate legal action led by Guam’s Attorney General is needed in order to mitigate further harm, pursue justice and compensation for damages caused by the environment and our people. We agree on the need for legal action. What is needed is a healthy, open and well-informed debate on the bill in the Committee of the Whole,” a statement from the Republican caucus stated.

The Republican senators say they agree with the stands of the Leon Guerrero-Tenorio administration, Speaker Tina Muna Barnes and Senator Pedo Terlaje that GovGuam must take immediate action before any further harm is caused on the people.

According to the GOP, an indefinite recess from the session does nothing to further the discussion on this important matter.

Had the bill been placed for discussion on the session floor, the Republican senators said they would have requested that the legislature go into the Committee of the Whole and bring in subject matter experts as well as representatives from GEPA, DPHSS, GWA, Adelup and the Attorney General’s Office to name a few.

The Republican caucus is of the position that the lawsuit will reveal the extent to which toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS has, over the past 40 years, impacted our community. Such related chemicals have been linked to birth defects, increased risk of thyroid disease, infertility and reduced immune responses in children.

“If litigation is the most effective route to holding people accountable for these atrocities and recovering millions of dollars to prevent further harm for future generations or pay for damages done, then I ask my colleagues to move swiftly in support of the bill,” says Senator Wil Castro, Minority Leader.

“If any of this is upheld in a court of law then countless Guam residents may have unknowingly been the victims of an atrocity committed upon our people,” says Senator Louise B. Muna, Assistant Minority Leader.

“Unfortunately, there’s evidence of cancer-causing substances in our GWA water wells which may be attributed to the fire-fighting foam used at military and civilian airport facilities. The special session today was meant to address the urgency of obtaining legal services necessary to represent the people of Guam at a time when at least 10 other affected communities have filed lawsuits. Every day lost because some senators fail to understand the urgency of acting in a timely manner means families continue to drink, take a bath, wash dishes, and care for their children with water that’s contaminated with significant levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Senators need to act now!” says Senator Telo Taitague, Minority Whip.

“If local authorities aren’t reporting these chemicals in annual reports but a lawsuit supported by supplemental scientific data proves otherwise, then let’s get to the bottom of this and quickly before any more harm is done. We should not delay to get to the truth and call for immediate corrective action,” says Senator James C. Moylan, Assistant Minority Whip.