Shanahan Says It's Safe to Drink Tap Water on Military Bases

Senior Airman Mizraim Diaz-Roman, bioenvironmental water program manager, 379th Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron, acquires a water sample for testing, August 22, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff. Sgt. Enjoli Saunders)
Senior Airman Mizraim Diaz-Roman, bioenvironmental water program manager, 379th Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron, acquires a water sample for testing, August 22, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff. Sgt. Enjoli Saunders)

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Wednesday that the water on bases nationwide is safe to drink, but a deal has yet to be worked out on firefighting foam that could be polluting groundwater.

"No one's drinking contaminated water at the over 400 sites in question," Shanahan said at a hearing of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

He said concerns raised by a September 2018 Government Accountability Office report on the firefighting foam used by Defense Department for decades, and the potential for runoff contaminating groundwater, are being addressed.

"We no longer train with them [and] we no longer test with them," he said of the fire retardants. "The only use of them is in the event of a fire."

Shanahan noted media reports that the DoD is pressing the Environmental Protection Agency for lower standards on the chemicals used in the firefighting foam.

"We've agreed with the EPA on a common standard," he said.

He did not specify what the common standard is but said the DoD was currently "in harmonization" with EPA standards.

"We have the right standards," he said.

The concerns center on the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), highly fluorinated chemicals, in the firefighting foam, according to the 2018 GAO report.

Shanahan was responding to questions from Rep. Betty McCollum, the Democratic-Farm-Labor Party representative from Minnesota, who referred to a detailed New York Times report in March that the DoD was pushing the EPA to adopt weaker standards for groundwater pollution.

She asked Shanahan to clarify "what's going on with the EPA, what's going on at the Department of Defense with some chemicals known as PFAS?"

Shanahan did not respond directly, but said that the health and well-being of service members and their families is a "number one priority" for the DoD. "Besides national security," the health of the force is "our No. 1 priority," he said.

At a hearing in March of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, also pressed Shanahan on whether drinking water had been contaminated at Pease Air National Guard Base in her state.

"No one knows what the long-term impacts of drinking that water is," Shaheen said.

Shanahan gave assurances that he would "look into this matter," and said he was "accountable and responsible for the safety and security of our men and women."

In a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in March, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, wrote of his "grave concerns regarding the delay in the finalization of EPA's groundwater cleanup guidelines" for PFAS substances.

He said the guidelines had been held up since August at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Carper said he had learned that the reason for the delay was that the DoD, NASA and the Small Business Administration were "urging for the adoption of a much less stringent cleanup standard."'

The GAO report last year said that the firefighting foam used at DoD installations could, at elevated levels, increase the risk of cancer or other health issues.

The report said the DoD had identified 401 installations "with known or potential releases of these chemicals," and said that the department "took actions, like providing alternative drinking water, at 32 locations" as of August 2017.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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