Trump threatens to veto defense bill over several provisions, including amendment to mitigate water contamination

In a 2017 file photo, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center performs drinking water sampling for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan.


By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 10, 2019

WASHINGTON — Art Schaap owns a dairy farm near Cannon Air Force Base outside of Clovis, New Mexico that he said has been contaminated with a chemical that has been leaking from the base into the ground.

The chemical, called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, is a substance commonly found in firefighting foam often used during training on military bases across the country and has been cited in news reports in recent years as the cause of contamination of nearby groundwater.

Schaap said Wednesday that the contamination from the Air Force base has damaged his farm. He cannot sell any milk or his cows, and he’s lost 40 employees, putting his family and business in distress. Schaap said he needs $2 million to install filters on 20 wells on his farm and another $500,000 yearly to maintain them.

“We’ve lost our income, we lost the value of our animals. My bank is looking at me every day,” Schaap said during a conference call with reporters.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., was also on the conference call Wednesday touting his bill in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 that expands the Air Force’s authority to provide drinking water to surrounding communities to include water for agriculture and farmers such as Schaap. The Udall provision was added to the Senate’s version of the NDAA with a modified version included in the House version of the legislation.

But President Donald Trump is threatening to veto the NDAA over several provisions being debated in the House version of the legislation, including Udall’s attempt to help farmers get cleaner water.

Udall called the president’s veto threat “outrageous.”

“[Trump] is threatening to veto the national defense bill because it tries too hard to clean up Department of Defense’s toxic waste that is imperiling America’s drinking water and farmers businesses and way of life,” the senator said during the conference call coordinated by Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that focuses on environment issues.

A White House statement issued Tuesday lists several dozen amendments to the House’s version of the NDAA and states that as the legislation is now written, Trump would be advised to veto it. Two amendments in the White House statement pertain to PFAS.

Studies have shown exposure to the chemical can cause increased cholesterol levels as well as some findings related to low infant birth weight, cancer, and impacts to the immune system in humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The group has just released an interactive map showing 712 sites in 49 states – including more that 100 new sites. Military bases are shown, as well as areas with contaminated drinking water.

One amendment in the House NDAA bill authorizes the Defense Department to provide water or water treatment for agricultural water that has been contaminated by perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which are PFAS chemicals.

More than 100 military sites across the country have known PFAS contamination in the drinking or groundwater, Udall said.

“The concentration of PFAS detected in the groundwater below Cannon Air Force Base next to Mr. Schaap’s dairy [farm] exceeded 2600 parts per trillion,” the senator said. “That’s 371 times greater than the U.S. EPA drinking water health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.”

The White House objected to this amendment, citing the EPA’s drinking water health advisory was not applicable because it was not meant to determine unhealthy levels of PFOS and PFOA chemicals in agricultural water as well as the effects on humans who consumed food that was produced with the agricultural water. It also objected to singling out the Defense Department for the contamination issue because it would have a significant impact and cost on the department.

Udall called the White House’s claim that the military is only a small part of the contamination problem “flat out wrong” because the exposure to the chemical around installations that used the firefighting foam repeatedly in large quantities is more concentrated.

“All the activity was done on the Air Force bases,” he said. “I don’t know who they’re claiming is a part of this.”

The military has known that PFAS is toxic since the 1970s, said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

“Even though they knew for decades… that fluorinated firefighting foams pose serious human health risks, the military continued to use PFAS firefighting foam in training exercises,” he said.

Udall said he believes he has bipartisan support for this issue in Congress and called on the military to be better neighbors.

“I find it appalling their behavior, and I expect them to do a lot better by their neighbors who have been very, very good to them,” he said. “I mean the neighboring communities have been welcoming, they help the Air Force bases. We need to see the same kind of respect from the leadership.”

Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., also objected to the president’s veto threat in a joint statement Wednesday.

“Vetoing this bill would not only hurt servicemembers and families affected by PFAS contamination, but would delay funding for our military, jeopardizing our national security,” according to the statement. “We will continue to fight to clean up toxic PFAS chemicals and take care of servicemembers and veterans.”

The Senate passed their version of the NDAA in June with a funding topline of $750 billion. The House’s version is heading to the floor to be debated Wednesday with a total funding of $733 billion, a $17 billion difference from the Senate. After that, Congress still must consolidate the two bills into one and pass it before the end of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Both chambers routinely take a monthlong recess in August.

Twitter: @caitlinmkenney