Lawmakers Press Pentagon, EPA for Answers on Military Water Contamination

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment Maureen Sullivan at a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee hearing on PFAS chemicals and their risks on March 6, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment Maureen Sullivan at a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee hearing on PFAS chemicals and their risks on March 6, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

Hope Grosse, of Montgomery Township, Pennsylvania, was 23 when she was diagnosed with a melanoma, shortly after her 53-year-old father died of brain cancer.

Nine miles away and nearly 30 years later, in Warminster, Pennsylvania, Jacquelyn Menkes nearly died from a thyroid disorder. Her husband Larry has bladder cancer.

The common thread running through these Bucks and Montgomery county residents' lives includes consuming water from systems contaminated with chemicals used at Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove to fight fires. The two bases are now closed, but firefighting foams containing potentially toxic chemicals were used for years during training and in emergencies.

On Wednesday, members of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on the environment heard from officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and Defense Department on what they are doing to fix the problem, which isn't restricted to counties outside Philadelphia -- it affects at least 401 active and former military bases, as well as communities near civilian factories where non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, fast food wrappers and firefighting foams were made and places where the chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, were manufactured.

Related: Residents Near 8 Military Bases to be Tested for Chemicals Tied to Cancer

The purpose of the hearing, according to Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Ohio, was to figure out why the EPA and DoD aren't moving faster to stem the use of PFAS and address the contamination.

"We should all be angry that those who are willing to pay the ultimate price for our country have to worry about exposure to toxic chemicals," Rouda said.

The Defense Department is conducting investigations around active and former bases to identify whether it released chemicals into groundwater and, subsequently, drinking water in some communities.

It has identified 36 sites that supply drinking water to installations that tested above the EPA's accepted limits of PFAS contamination, as well as 564 public or private drinking water systems off bases that tested above limits.

But while the DoD has switched to using water or non-toxic substances to conduct firefighting training and stopped using the chemical-laced foams in most cases, it continues to use them in emergencies and onboard ships until an effective substitute can be found, Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the environment, told subcommittee members.

"Currently, no fluorine-free version of aqueous film forming foams meets the military requirements," Sullivan said, adding that the DoD nonetheless is pursuing research to find an environmentally safe substitute.

One of the issues hampering cleanup of these chemicals -- which have been implicated but not proven to cause a number of illnesses, such as infertility, developmental disorders in children, thyroid disease and cancer -- is that their use in commercial products and household items is extensive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), most members of the general population have been exposed through household use.

A draft report by the ATSDR released last year notes that the compounds, which are manmade and don't appear in nature, resist degradation and may be related to adverse health outcomes in those exposed. The agency suggested that the recommended EPA limit of 70 parts per trillion is inadequate to protect people and may recommend that 10 parts per trillion should be the EPA limit.

Sullivan said the Pentagon has budgeted $1.3 billion to address current PFAS investigations and contamination, and added that the effort would add another $2 billion to $27 billion in costs the Pentagon faces in cleaning up environmental pollutants, including "hazardous substances, unexploded ordnance and chemical weapons."

She added that the Defense Health Agency is conducting a review of PFAS exposure among service members and is slated to give Congress an estimate of the number of personnel who have been exposed, as well as a budget estimate for creating a registry of those members and their families.

Grosse attended the hearing and many lawmakers on the panel pointed her out, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, adding, "It's important to acknowledge that people are suffering here," before she excoriated Sullivan and the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Water, Dave Ross, for not moving quickly enough to address the problem.

Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, urged the EPA to pursue cleanup efforts and remediation strategies, saying it must "effectively communicate with localities, states and the general public on which areas are affected."

"Potential drinking water contamination is frightening for everyone," Comer said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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