The PFAS Contamination Crisis: US Military Poisons Hundreds of Communities

10 cancer deaths in one family at Peterson AFB where PFAS was found at concentrations of 88,400 ppt in water sources.
10 cancer deaths in one family at Peterson AFB where PFAS was found at concentrations of 88,400 ppt in water sources.

By Pat Elder, March 15, 2019

Military Times recently reported that 16 relatives from one family living close to Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs have been diagnosed with cancer and 10 have died. Local water sources are contaminated with 88,400 ppt of PFAS, a toxin used in fire-fighting foam.

Scores of on-base and off-base water sources around Peterson have tested significantly higher than the EPA’s recommended exposure of 70 parts per trillion of perfluoro octane sulfonate (PFAS) or perfluoro octanoic acid (PFOA). The compounds were part of the military’s firefighting foam until last year.  The compounds have been linked to cancers and developmental delays for fetuses and infants.  The DOD has since switched to other, slightly less cancerous foams, yet still lethal.  Peterson’s contamination ranges up to 7,910 parts per trillion in public and private drinking wells off-base. Harvard scientists say 1 ppt of PFAS in drinking water may be harmful.

See this DOD publication for a partial listing of contaminated bases and communities.

Military Contamination Coverup

The DOD is engaged in a coverup over its contamination of groundwater and drinking water in communities across the country, (and around the world), stemming from the use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used in routine fire-training exercises on military bases. The military allows the poisons to leach into the groundwater to contaminate neighboring communities which use groundwater in their wells and municipal water systems.  The bases also contaminate local sewer systems that are saddled with toxic sewer sludge they must dispose.

The DOD has tested thousands of individual wells across the country for PFAS but they’re not telling us the results.

They’re sharing test results of wells off-base with some individual owners, although they’re keeping most of the data from public view.  We don’t know how far these tested wells were located from the routine discharges of PFAS on base, so we don’t know how far the deadly plumes of contamination have travelled.  We don’t know how deep the private wells were. We don’t know how deep the wells tested on base were. We don’t know how precise their measurements were.  Experts tell us  the military is performing tests that are designed to miss small, yet potentially toxic amounts of the contaminants.

The DOD sent notices to local newspapers across the country, announcing military testing of private wells for these contaminants.  In many communities, there was no additional reporting on the contamination so the issue disappeared from public view.

Homeowners who live close to military bases nationwide have received letters like this one in Brunswick, Maine, asking for permission to collect samples of drinking water:

Dear Homeowner, 

“The Navy is requesting permission to sample drinking water from properties within two designated sampling areas near the former Naval Air Station (NAS) Brunswick, Maine base. The request is being made as a result of recent sampling conducted on the former base that found perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in groundwater above United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provisional       health advisory levels. Recognizing the potential for the PFCs to move off the former NAS Brunswick property in the groundwater and potentially impacting the quality of drinking water for nearby residents, the Navy would like to sample these select drinking water wells.”

The Navy has poisoned the groundwater in Brunswick, Maine with PFAS at levels of 24,000 ppt.  The website of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection hosted an advisory from the Navy that included this statement:

“The Navy is requesting permission to sample drinking water from properties within two designated sampling areas near the former Naval Air Station (NAS) Brunswick, Maine. Results from the sampling of drinking water wells are expected in July 2016. The Navy will keep these results private to the extent permitted by law. The Navy will provide notification to each property owner of their personal drinking water results for their property.”

Apparently, the law conspires against transparency. We’re kept from knowing how sick we are from this contamination and this is tantamount to murder.

The Portland Press Herald reported in September, 2017 that the Navy declined to release  details of the results they collected.  The issue vanished, like it does almost everywhere. There was one newspaper report a few months later, that PFAS-contaminated groundwater at Brunswick Landing had seeped into wastewater pipes bound for the Brunswick Sewer District, which discharges treated water into the Androscoggin River, but that was it, although the state of Maine has recently committed to studying the issue of PFAS contamination and “strategies to mitigate the impacts.”

In Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, a small community about 30 miles east of Washington, DC., the Baynet newspaper reported in June 2018 that the Navy would be testing private wells in the town. PFAS was found at concentrations of 241,000 ppt in the groundwater, ten times the concentration than in Brunswick, Maine and three times the concentration at Peterson AFB.  In October 2018, the Navy published the results of its drinking water investigation.  Out of the 42 samples collected by the Navy through September 2018, no samples exceeded the lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt set by the EPA. The results indicate that exposure to PFOS and PFOA is not occurring at the private drinking water wells that have been sampled to date.  Issue over. We don’t know any of the testing details.

Experts say the Air Force’s investigation of drinking water near Moody Air Force Base, Georgia may have been flawed because the military tested water drawn from much deeper wells that those of adjacent property owners.  Harvard scientist Elsie Sunderland told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the government’s reporting limit was too high for this class of chemicals. “Just because it was tested and they said, ‘below detection,’ doesn’t mean you know that you have no PFAS in your drinking water,” she said. “The test was not sensitive enough to see the PFAS in the water at levels we might be concerned about.”

The Air Force explained that its response to the contamination in Georgia was limited by the lack of PFAS regulations. “Because PFOS/PFOA are unregulated and Georgia or federal entities have not established standards for non-drinking water sources, we cannot expend government resources on those water sources.” The Air Force said it’s authority to mitigate contamination “does not extend to risks posed to livestock and agriculture, to include indirect threats to humans through ingestion of plants and animals.’”

A dying cow, contaminated by PFAS, in the documentary “The Devil We Know"
A dying cow, contaminated by PFAS, in the documentary “The Devil We Know”

The issue of contaminated water disappeared quickly at the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant (NWIRP) / Grumman facility near Calverton, New York.  In September, 2018, the notice appeared in the local press that the Navy was seeking to test private drinking water for PFAS.   The Navy held a public meeting, but the issue of testing disappeared from news outlets after that.

It’s the same story at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Meridian, near Meridian, MS.  On April 28, 2018 Meridian Naval Air Station released the preliminary results of testing it authorized for drinking water wells near the base. Samples taken in mid-April 2018 did not show the presence of PFOS or PFOA. “We notified the two well owners, and we are pleased with the results of the testing,” said Capt. Scott Bunnay, commanding officer of NAS Meridian.

Story over. They tested two wells.

It’s pretty much the same story at Marine Corps Outlying Landing Field Atlantic, North Carolina.  The sampling was collected in June 2018 and the results were made public in August 2018.  258 wells were tested and two were found to have PFAS at more than 70 ppt.

The Carteret County News-Observer reported on the issue in mid-February.  The Navy hasn’t admitted using PFAS at the base.  The spokesperson said, “We are still in the very early phases of the investigation, seeking evidence of possible use of AFFF on the airfield.”

Officials at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota announced in October, 2018 that nine wells close to the base tested positive for PFAS. The Air Force conducted another round of water well tests showing that four were above the EPA’s Health advisory level of 70 ppt. for the two substances.

These results, an Air Force release stated, “indicate the levels in the wells above the lifetime health advisory ”are more isolated.”

Plainsview Mobile Manor near Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD
Plainsview Mobile Manor near Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD

A brilliant investigate piece by the Rapid City Journal in mid-January reported that 15 wells near Ellsworth AFB (SD) were found to contain PFAS at levels above what the EPA deems safe, including the well serving Plainsview Mobile Manor that provides water to around 200 people living in 75 mobile homes. Since October Plainsview residents and other affected households have received free water from the base, with each household receiving a weekly ration of five gallons per person.

Cody Kaspar and Kelly Holden do their best to avoid using the contaminated water that pours from their mobile home’s faucet. It’s a different story, however, for their three young children.  “We catch them running to the sink all the time to fill up their water glasses. They don’t understand — water is water is water.”

Drinking the water could be deadly.

Michigan & New Mexico Lead the Resistance

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, (DEQ)  is battling the Air Force over cleaning up the PFAS contamination across the state and particularly near Wurtsmuth Air Force Base. The DEQ served the Air Force with a violation notice on October 19, 2018 which says the Air Force is failing to meet the12 ppt limit on the amount of PFAS allowed in Michigan groundwater at the point where it co-mingles with a lake or river.

The Air Force says the DEQ “lacks the jurisdictional authority” to force compliance because the federal government “has not waived sovereign immunity with regard to the state regulation.”  The Air Force “is hereby informing you that it will not be taking any new remedial actions at this time,” wrote Stephen Termaath, chief of the Air Force civil engineering center program that coordinates cleanup at contaminated former bases.

At Battle Creek Air National Guard, Michigan, one well tested at 72,500 ppt, 750 times higher than the EPA’s 70 ppt Lifetime Health Advisory.  PFAS has been one of the top stories in Battle Creek and throughout Michigan this year. Michigan has been a state hard-hit by PFAS contamination while Flint’s problems with lead-poisoned water still linger.

It’s not surprising then, that three members of Congress from Michigan – Debbie Dingell, Dan Kildee, and Fred Upton  introduced H.R. 535 – PFAS Action Act of 2019  that would designate all PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA). Many are ahead of the learning curve in Michigan, although the legislation has only managed to attract 15 co-sponsors.  The DOD isn’t backing the legislation, that’s for certain.

New Mexico is also standing tall. The Air Force tested 25 private water sites near Cannon Air Force Base and found three that are not safe to drink and two other sites that “need monitoring.”  The Air Force announced those results and hoped the issue would die down like it has in communities across the country, but it has not. New Mexicans are battling the Air Force.

In a lawsuit against the Air Force  filed in early March, 2019, New Mexico claims the military isn’t doing enough to contain or clean up dangerous chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater below Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases.  “We have significant amounts of PFAS in the groundwater, under both Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases,” NM Environment Department Secretary James Kenney told NM Political Report.

New Mexico is providing the template for other states to follow.  Several state agencies are working to collect and analyze groundwater samples. In a few weeks the state agencies will organize a series of public meetings to address the crisis.

Communities must rely on the military to safeguard public health in the absence of a state or local response. Meanwhile, the military continues to contaminate groundwater worldwide.

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