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Cleaning up toxic PFAS on military bases could take decades, cost billions

PFAS appears in firefighting foam that has been routinely used on military bases nationwide (Photo: Department of Defense)
PFAS appears in firefighting foam that has been routinely used on military bases nationwide (Photo: Department of Defense)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) — It's been more than 50 years since a horrific fire at sea led to the development of a fast-acting firefighting foam that changed the way the military fights fires. But contamination from chemicals in that foam has created a nationwide clean up crisis that could take decades and cost taxpayers more than $2 billion.

On July 29, 1967, cameras mounted on the bridge of the USS Forestal captured a disaster unfolding at sea, prompting a call for all hands on deck. As the cameras rolled, a series of explosions sent a sheet of flames washing over the ship. In seconds, the blaze raged out of control, despite the best efforts of firefighters and crew. The calamity, which killed 134 sailors and injured more than 160 others, changed the way the United States Navy, and the military as a whole, fight fires.

"Believe me, there’s no scarier thing than a fire on a ship. There’s nowhere to go," said Steve Ellis, a former Coast Guard officer who's now VP of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

As a former officer in the Coast Guard, Steve Ellis knows the value of the quick-acting firefighting foam developed in the wake of the Forestal fire. Ellis is now the vice president of DC-based Taxpayers for Common Sense. From that perspective, he says it’s time for the Department of Defense to start talking frankly about what it’s going to take to clean up the mess associated with decades of use of that foam.

"We have to develop something that isn’t going to contaminate water and infect people," Ellis explained.

As a Spotlight on America investigation detailed, the firefighting foam currently used on hundreds of military bases nationwide contains the toxic man-made chemicals known as PFAS, which studies show have a link to cancer and other health problems. For decades, foam containing PFAS was used in daily training exercises by the military and it’s still the go-to fire killer in emergencies, even though it has contaminated drinking and groundwater.

Congressional hearings showed that private industry has long known about potential harms associated with PFAS. Spotlight on America wanted to know why the military continued to use the firefighting foam that contains those chemicals.

Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure, told us, "We are experts on defending the country. We are not experts in deciding what is and what is not a contaminant. We rely on the Environmental Protection Agency to do that. And in fairness to them, this is a scientific process that takes an extended period of time and they were looking at it for a long period of time."

The Environmental Protection Agency put out early warnings about the potential dangers of PFAS chemicals in 2009. But it wasn’t until the agency created more serious lifetime health advisories in 2016 that the military began taking aggressive action, testing and identifying contaminated sites. Correll says drinking water was the top priority not just for the Air Force, but the entire military. Protecting people from drinking water contaminated by PFAS is a job Correll says is complete. But the massive nationwide clean up effort of contaminated bases, which could cost taxpayers upward of $2 billion, hasn’t even started yet.

"It’s kind of premature to put a number out there," Correll said. "What I can tell you is that the Air Force has spent $450 million so far and we haven’t even gotten to the remedial investigation or even started the actual cleanups of these plumes."

"We’re looking at decades of cleanup and a spiraling price tag," said Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Step one should have happened years ago, so it’s time for DOD to get ahead of the curve and deal with this issue head on and be straight with taxpayers."

The DOD formed a PFAS Task Force this summer on the first day in office for Defense Secretary Dr. Mark Esper. Spotlight on America is told an interim report from the group will be provided to Esper by the end of November. That report is scheduled for public release in early December, with a final report coming after the new year.

Among the issues the task force is examining: the establishment of uniform clean up standards for toxic firefighting foam and finding a safe and effective alternative so the military doesn’t have to use the PFAS foam that's created this crisis. Ellis said, "Any big entity, there’s slow recognition of these issues. They say it takes a long time to turn around an aircraft carrier. Well, the Pentagon is an aircraft carrier times a million."

Mark Correll says, "If there’s something we could have done earlier, we would have loved to have known that. But we can’t take action on things we don’t know."

What they now know is there is a monumental task ahead. There is currently no national clean up standard when it comes to PFAS. Correll explains the military has been making use of a federal law called CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) to do its initial evaluations nationwide and to intervene in cases of contamination. The DOD's efforts are also impacted by state regulations, which have required review by DOD attorneys.

"You can, in fact, do damage if you don't do it right in terms of the clean up," said Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure. "We have a responsibility to do it. We will continue to move down that road. But it will take time."
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And with service members still using the toxic foam, Correll says the Air Force is taking steps to ensure safety and a clean environment moving forward. "If we use AAAF (firefighting foam) in a real world response for a real fire, even though it’s not even designated as a hazardous material, we’ll treat it that way," he said. "That means as soon as the fire is out, we segregate that area. We clean it up. We’ll remove the soil, capture the water as if it were a hazardous substance."

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