National Security

Military cleanup of water contamination on bases will top $2 billion

The price tag to clean up contaminated water sources at all military installations is likely to climb higher than the $2 billion original cost estimate, the Pentagon said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper in July directed the Pentagon to establish a task force to not only look at the contamination, but begin to assess the health impacts that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known commonly as PFAS, may have had on service members, their families and the communities surrounding their bases.

The Pentagon estimated in 2018 that the cleanup would likely cost around $2 billion. But in the months since, it has found additional locations where there is PFAS contamination.

“Do I think it’s going to be bigger than that? The answer is yes,” said Bob McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment who chairs the new task force.

“We’re really not going to know [the full extent and costs] until we have much more analysis, much more investigation into the sites, to see the scope of the problem,” said Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and a task force member.

McMahon and Sullivan met with reporters to discuss the Pentagon review. The task force has six months to come up with recommendations for Esper, who ordered the Pentagon to come up with a solution for the contaminated bases as one of his first official duties in office.

Hundreds of military bases across the United States have either drinking water sources or groundwater that has above-acceptable levels of the chemicals in them, the Pentagon and independent watchdog the Environmental Working Group has found.

McMahon said the group has identified several areas it needs to address. Those include cleanup cost and also future health care such as making it easier for veterans or service members to be able to get their illnesses recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs as connected to their service in the military.

The chemicals are linked to cancers and birth defects and are found in everyday household supplies, but are concentrated in the military’s firefighting foam that has been in use since the 1970s. Over the decades, that foam has seeped into ground water and drinking wells at hundreds of military locations worldwide.

The task force is also looking closely at the firefighting foam, known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) that has now largely been banned from being used in training at land-based military facilities but is still used to fight actual aviation fire emergencies. It was not clear if the foam has similarly been banned in training aboard all Navy ships as recent exercises publicized by the Defense Department seemed to indicate it was still in use.

McMahon acknowledged the impact the foam has had on communities, and why the Pentagon is making efforts now to phase out the foam.

“We don’t use [AFFF] in training anymore,” McMahon said. “When it’s used is when we are in an actual emergency, and when it is, we treat that site as a spill and treat it as spill contamination much like we do a variety of other chemicals.”

Reducing AFFF use “doesn’t undo what we’ve done,” McMahon said. “What it does is ensure we don’t contribute any more to the contamination that has taken place.”

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