Chemical cleanup at bases could cost more than $2 billion, new task force determines

By COREY DICKSTEIN | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 13, 2019

WASHINGTON – The costs to clean up chemical contaminates suspected at more than 400 current and former military sites could eclipse the $2 billion estimate that the Pentagon projected in March, defense officials said Thursday.

The increased cost assessment for the Defense Department came as an environmental watchdog organization that monitors drinking water contamination at military sites increased the number of installations where it said PFAS substances have been found in drinking water and warned that number would continue to increase.

The Pentagon recently established a task force to determine the scope of contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, at Defense Department sites and the impact those man-made chemicals have on humans, said Bob McMahon, who is the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment and the chairman of the task force.

Since the 1950s, PFAS have been used worldwide in a variety of products including non-stick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, and the firefighting foam commonly used throughout the military. They have been linked to an increase in cancer risks, birth defects and other health problems, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.

McMahon said Thursday that the task force is working with ATSDR to better understand the problem the military faces, starting with studies of eight stateside Air Force installations or former installations and their surrounding communities chosen by ATSDR. The Pentagon has also begun to study the impacts of PFAS on Defense Department firefighters, who through using the firefighting foam – officially known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF – are believed to have received the most exposure to the chemicals in the department.

The ATSDR study will look at Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base in West Virginia, Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, the former Reese Air Force Base in Texas, Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York, New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware and Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington, and the communities surrounding them. Officials hope to determine the level of PFAS chemicals in humans in those communities and how those levels correlate to health problems.

For the Pentagon, the primary issue is drinking water contaminated by the decades-long use of AFFF, the firefighting foam. In 2016, the Defense Department banned the use of the foam during training events on installations, but it still uses it to fight actual fires. McMahon said there is no alternative to the potentially toxic firefighting foam.

When the foam is deployed, McMahon said, the Defense Department now treats the area as a toxic spill in an effort to keep it from spreading too far. He believes the discontinued use of the foam in training should correlate to lower levels of PFAS in drinking water near military posts.

“It does not undo what we’ve done” in the past, said McMahon, a retired Air Force major general. “But it does ensure we don’t contribute anymore to the contamination that’s taken place.”

What McMahon and the Pentagon have yet to determine is exactly how much of a problem they have, and what it will cost to mitigate it.

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that specializes in environmental research and advocacy, announced this week that it has increased the number of military installations where it has identified PFAS in drinking water. The group added 90 Army posts to its list of Defense Department sites where drinking water shows some level of PFAS contamination, bringing the total to 297 U.S. military installations with the issue.

That number is expected to grow as the other services provide updated data to EWG, which the group requested through the Freedom of Information Act, McMahon said. Pentagon studies have identified 401 current and former military sites confirmed or suspected of being exposed to PFAS.

Despite the finding of PFAS chemicals in the water, McMahon said the department has taken action to limit the chemicals in drinking water via filtration and other methods. None of the DOD-provided drinking water on its installations exceeds the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit of 70 parts-per-trillion for the PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam.

“As of today, there are no military members that are drinking water that’s above the lifetime health advisory, where the Department of Defense is the purveyor of the water,” he said. “That’s important, because that is the most important measure – are we taking care of our people?”

Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the environment, said Thursday that the department had spent some $200 million annually for the last 10 years on PFAS-related cleanup. She used that figure to determine her “wild guess” in March that the Pentagon would need $2 billion for PFAS cleanup efforts.

“There was no factoring in of clean-up levels, no factoring in of technologies,” Sullivan told reporters Thursday alongside McMahon. “It was just a general – it’s going to be somewhere in that vicinity. We’re really not going to know [the cost] until we have much more investigation into the sites to see the scope of the problem.”

McMahon, too, expects the costs to eventually exceed the original estimate.

“Do I think it’s going to be bigger than that? The answer is yes,” he said.

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC