The Pentagon Doesn't Want to Pay to Clean Up Toxic Chemicals Released on Military Bases

Photo: Matt Rourke/AP

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing the White House to approve new standards that would require the Pentagon to fund expensive clean ups at military bases, where dangerous chemicals used by the military have often gone on to contaminate groundwater. But the Pentagon is fighting back, trying to convince the Trump administration to use a less stringent standard to evaluate the safety of drinking water, according to the New York Times.

A top official at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention called the dispute “one of the most seminal public health challenges” of our time, according to the Times.

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There’s a strong argument to be made that the military is responsible for high levels of Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contaminating the drinking water of millions of Americans. Though PFAS can be found in everything from non-stick pans to furniture, the military is one of the biggest users of the chemicals. They are part of the firefighting foam used during trainings on military bases.

Drinking water contaminated with PFAS is known to interfere with normal functioning of hormones, affect the development of children, lower fertility in women, raise cholesterol, affect the immune system, and increase the chance of developing cancer.

The Environmental Working Group has found contamination by PFAS at 106 military sites.

From the Times:

In 2017, after military communities around the country began to report alarming levels of PFAS in their drinking water, the Pentagon confirmed that there were 401 known military facilities in the United States where it was used.

Further study by the Pentagon concluded that the PFAS contamination had turned up in drinking water or groundwater in at least 126 of these locations, with some of them involving systems that provide water to tens of thousands of people both on the bases and in nearby neighborhoods. In some instances, the Defense Department is providing temporary replacement water supplies.

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It sure sounds like this is the Defense Department’s responsibility!

The DOD has been phasing out the use of these chemicals in recent years. But even their replacements are pretty nasty.

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To address this problem, the EPA is trying to create a new nationwide standard that would require clean ups on federal sites to prevent PFAS from entering drinking water. It would also set the maximum level of several types of PFAS allowable in drinking water. Finally, it would formally categorize the substances as hazardous, which would allow contaminated areas to be designated as Superfund sites.

Both the Pentagon and NASA have objected to these new standards, which could result in expensive cleanups for the agencies. According to Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, the clean up could cost the Pentagon roughly $2 billion. The DOD budget for 2019 was $716 billion.

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In response to the EPA, the Pentagon has reportedly suggested its own, less stringent, standards.

From the Times:

But the Pentagon, in a report to Congress last year, indicated that it believed that an appropriate cleanup level for PFAS would be 380 parts per trillion, or nearly six times the proposed E.P.A. advisory drinking water level. That 380 parts per trillion is also more than 30 times a level suggested as safe for drinking water by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (One part per trillion is equivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.) [...]

The Pentagon has agreed to clean up groundwater to the 70 parts per trillion standard, if contamination of either of the chemicals at a site is found above 400 parts per trillion, according to Mr. Carper’s letter. That would mean many sites that would have been subject to cleanup requirements based on the E.P.A.’s original proposal would now be able to avoid such remediation efforts — and costs — potentially polluting drinking water in the future.

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But the EPA and its allies are still fighting for their version of PFAS standards.

“Many of these sites have languished for years, even decades. How can these Americans prosper if they cannot live, learn, or work in healthy environments?” Senator Thomas Carper, who sits on the committee that oversees the EPA, wrote in a letter to the EPA. “Please take prompt action to finalize groundwater clean-up guidelines for PFAS that live up to your stated objectives and reject efforts by other federal agencies to weaken them.”

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Some states are taking matters into their own hands while they wait for the dust to settle on federal standards. The Vermont Senate voted unanimously this week in favor of putting a new limit on PFAS in drinking water, and requiring annual testing of water to check PFAS levels.

Other local governments, including water districts in Colorado, the city of Newburgh, NY, and the state of New Mexico, have filed lawsuits against the DOD over the contamination.

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