EPA Slow to Act on PFAS Contamination Crisis

Photo: Adrienne St. Clair, Cronkite News

A hearing on Capitol Hill today probed EPA’s failure to set safety standards for a class of toxic chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — also called the “forever chemicals” because they take thousands of years to break down.  Both Democrats and Republicans are concerned because PFAS has seeped into many public water systems in the United States and globally, especially near and on military bases and industrial sites, exposing millions to these chemicals at dangerous levels and causing health problems in those communities.  According to Military Times, David Ross, of the EPA’s water office, defended the agency’s decision to continue researching the compounds before taking any formal regulatory action, saying that the science on PFAS “is not yet as robust as it needs to be.”

  • Last year, the Pentagon said there were 401 installations where there are known or suspected releases of the two best known PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, into groundwater.
  • The Environmental Working Group found that there are 106 military sites in the U.S. where the drinking water or groundwater is contaminated with PFAS at levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s health guideline.
  • Cleaning up and protecting U.S. drinking water from PFAS contamination could cost tens of billions of dollars nationally, including $2 billion for the Department of Defense alone.

As we have reported for nearly a year, military families are understandably upset about the risks they are facing from PFAS contamination.  Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan explained to the Committee that veterans and families are increasingly fearful of PFAS contamination around bases; “[t]he Defense Department in particular has so far failed to act with the required urgency to address this growing problem,” he said. The Military Times reports that some states and communities with military installations have accused the Pentagon of using the lack of any mandatory federal limit for PFAS in drinking water as a reason to deny its responsibility for cleanup and the military has yet to request any funding to clean up PFAS contamination on and near installations.  New Mexico sued the Air Force on Tuesday over PFAS contamination around two bases in that state.

Why This Matters:  The Trump Administration wants to take billions of dollars from DOD’s military construction budget to build the border wall.  That money would be better spent on this PFAS contamination crisis that is poisoning the water in and around military bases.  And EPA should issue an interim or emergency rule on PFAS if they cannot yet make a definitive determination on proper contamination limits.  Why not err on the side of public safety?  It seems as if this Administration does not know a real emergency when they see one.  Why should our veterans and their families be put at risk any longer?  DOD’s budget is more than $600 billion annually — $2 billion does not seem such a high price to pay to clean up this mess.  At the very least, if DOD requested the funding, Congress would likely give it to them.

Graphic: Union of Concerned Scientists

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