Report: Military's flawed oversight of toxic chemicals increased risks to personnel, public
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Defense Department responded too slowly to reduce the dangers of cancer-causing chemicals used in firefighting foam, despite knowing the health hazards for decades, and then failed to put in place adequate measures to protect personnel, the environment and communities near military bases, says a newly released inspector general's report.
The military issued an alert in 2011 describing the risks posed by PFAS — a set of long-lasting chemicals — to people and the environment, but this alert did not compel officials to take action or phase out the harmful substances, the report says, resulting in little being done until 2016.
In New Mexico, state regulators have blamed lack of federal oversight for PFAS contaminating groundwater around the Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases, located in Clovis and Alamogordo, respectively.
PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down, allowing them to accumulate in soil, water and living organisms. Adverse health effects include increased cholesterol, reproductive problems, impaired immunity and cancer.
The report also faults the military for not taking a comprehensive or "enterprise-wide" approach in tackling PFAS hazards. The military focused mainly on PFAS in fire-retardant foam and not the other sources of the chemicals, the report says.
"As a result, people and the environment may continue to be exposed to preventable risks from other PFAS‑containing materials," the report says.
The report credits defense officials for their recent efforts to phase out PFAS from firefighting foam and to notify communities of the possible hazards that PFAS-laced discharges from military bases pose to groundwater.
But an environmental group contends the military, which helped develop PFAS for fire suppressants, knew they were toxic back in the 1970s and ignored the risks for decades.
"The IG report actually only scratches the surface," said Scott Faber, vice president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group based in Washington, D.C. He said military leaders "failed to act in violation of their own policies."
Meanwhile, legacy PFAS pollution, detected around bases such as Cannon and Holloman, is given low priority because Congress and federal agencies don't require the cleanup, Faber said.
PFAS also aren't officially designated as hazardous chemicals under the federal Superfund law, so cleanup isn't considered urgent, Faber added.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no drinking water limit for PFAS. It has established a lifetime health advisory level for two chemicals in the PFAS group — PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion, which means there may be ill effects if PFAS is ingested above this threshold for many years.
"So these toxic PFAS plumes never get addressed," Faber said. "The biggest challenge is cultural. The Defense Department just isn't taking responsibility for legacy pollution because they'd rather spend money on hardware."
New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney has accused the military of doing nothing voluntarily to allay the PFAS plumes the two Air Force bases have generated.
Although Kenney has said PFAS pollution is one of his high priorities, neither he nor anyone from the Environment Department responded Tuesday to questions about the inspector general's report.
Last year, the Air Force agreed to pay the state $251,000 for Cannon allowing its wastewater permit to expire — a steep reduction from the $1.7 million in penalties the base had racked up. Cannon also agreed to monitor groundwater for PFAS.
That settlement didn't affect the lawsuit the state Attorney General's Office filed against the Air Force in 2019 after groundwater samples in Clovis and Alamogordo showed chemical levels hundreds of times higher than the federal advisory limits.
The inspector general expresses concerns about the military declining to track and analyze blood samples taken from its firefighters who were likely exposed to PFAS. The report says it was a missed opportunity to further study the impacts of these chemicals on human health.
Faber said it also disregards the firefighters' long-term health, arguing it's yet another case of the military trying to absolve itself from health problems that can surface long after exposure.
Considering an estimated 300 military installations have suffered PFAS contamination, it's probable many nearby communities have been affected, he said.
Five years ago, the military replaced the chemical PFOS in firefighting foam with another PFAS chemical that was equally toxic, Faber said. Two years ago, Congress ordered the military to quit using PFAS in fire training and to phase out the substances in foams by 2024.
For now, Faber said, the military will keep the PFAS-laden foams on hand despite the growing research on the health hazards.
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