The Pentagon is on board with a new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at clarifying state and federal cleanup standards to address groundwater and drinking water contaminated by decades of seepage of chemicals — including those used in the military’s firefighting foams.
For decades, the military used firefighting foams that contained PFAS chemicals. These per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are also found in everyday household products. PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancers and other health problems.
Meanwhile, today, an advocacy group that says even those standards are “woefully inadequate” released its updated, interactive map showing PFAS contamination at 610 sites in 43 states. Of those on the Environmental Working Group’s list, 117 are military sites, including 77 military airports. Service members and families can click on military locations to find the levels of contamination, based on EWG’s research on DoD and other data.
The EPA’s proposal doesn’t lower the cleanup standards — the Pentagon had reportedly sought to weaken the standards, according to press reports. This proposal aligns with the EPA’s 2016 health advisory that recommended water sources contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the PFAS chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and/or perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS at sites being addressed, including those under federal cleanup programs. The PFOA and PFOS are the two most well-known of the hundreds of PFAS chemicals currently in use. The proposal also would set a rate of 40 ppt as the level where no adverse effects are expected.
While the EPA’s health advisory has been in effect since 2016, neither the Pentagon or any municipality was required to meet the 70 ppt standard.
DoD, NASA and the Small Business Administration had reportedly pushed for increasing the standard to 380 ppt for a clean up standard, which would have allowed higher exposure to the compounds in water sources, according to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., in a March letter to the EPA. “Such levels would, among other consequences, subject fewer sites that were contaminated through the military’s use of PFOA/PFOS from having to be remediated in the first place,” Carper said.
“DoD fully supports the trigger level for investigation and initial cleanup goal contained in EPA’s draft interim recommendations,” said DoD spokeswoman Heather Babb. “EPA’s draft provides helpful guidance for a consistent approach to PFOA and/or PFOS groundwater cleanups.”
DoD has been using 40 ppt in groundwater as the level to begin a detailed investigation of sites with the PFOS and/or PFOA contamination, Babb said. In addition, DoD “has been using and will continue to use the 70 ppt as the preliminary remediation goal” – the initial target for a cleanup level. That can be adjusted, based on the site, as more information becomes available, she said.
She said DoD has been using the “long-established Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act” process in its cleanups, “The science-based process applies to everyone and every chemical and it indicates 390 ppt as the level that requires the initiation of the cleanup process,” she said.
In testimony May 1 before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said, “we’ve agreed with the EPA on a common standard, and it was their standard.”
He said there were discussions on the processes that will be used to implement the EPA’s standard. Noting that the EPA’s recommended guidelines are out for public comment, he told lawmakers, “I think in working with you and others, do we have the right standard is really now the question for us.”
The Environmental Working Group contends those proposed EPA standards “are a woefully inadequate response to the growing nationwide crisis of drinking water contaminated with PFAS,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews in a press release.
EWG says ”studies by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, scientists for a number of states, and private researchers have found those levels are far too high to protect public health.” Some states have proposed standards at or near 20 ppt, EWG noted.
The EPA proposal also falls short because it doesn’t declare PFAS chemicals to be hazardous substances under the Superfund cleanup law, and doesn’t legally require the Pentagon or the chemical industry to clean up contaminated military facilities, industrial sites or dumps, according to the EWG.
Virtually every American has some of these chemicals in their bodies, said Bill Walker, editor in chief at Environmental Working Group. These chemicals come from a variety of sources, including waterproof clothing, and food.
As military families check out the EWG interactive map for possible contamination at their current location, the best remedy is to prevent future exposure to the chemicals, said Alexis Temkin, toxicologist at EWG. There are a number of different options for water filtration, for example, and the type used depends on the chemical. EWG’s consumer guides have some information.
“But it’s not right that the burden has to be on the individual resident, the individual citizen to protect his or her health or his family’s health. This should be something that the government is protecting us from," said Walker. "It’s much easier and economic to keep chemicals out of the water supply in the first place, than to filter them out when they get in there. Obviously PFAS chemicals have been in use for decades. We can’t change history, but we need to learn from this situation, that the key is to keep chemicals from getting into the water.”
Shanahan said during his testimony that “no one is drinking contaminated water” at the sites in question identified by DoD. The military no longer uses the PFAS chemicals in training or in testing, he said. “The only use of them is in the event of a fire.
“The real work here is on remediation.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.