The Pentagon’s contamination time bomb: Cleanup backlog outpaces funding

WASHINGTON – The Department of Defense is failing to confront an almost $4 billion increase in the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites, many polluted by the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. And its cleanup budget is falling behind, a new Environmental Working Group analysis finds.

The estimated total for cleaning up DOD sites has soared to $31 billion, up by $3.7 billion from 2016 to 2021, the last year the Pentagon provided estimates. Yet its cleanup budget increased just $400 million over the same period. It can’t tackle PFAS cleanup properly with this level of funding. 

Some sites plagued by these toxic chemicals might not get cleaned up for more than half a century.

The gap between the cost of cleaning up PFAS contamination and the military budget has grown at a record pace. But the Pentagon has low-balled its budget requests to Congress year after year. In fact, the DOD has asked for less cleanup funding in recent years than it received in 2016.

“The DOD is facing a ticking cleanup time bomb as funding falls dramatically behind cleanup costs,” said Jared Hayes, a senior policy analyst at EWG. “It’s clear that funding at current levels cannot possibly catch up to rising cleanup obligations.”

The DOD estimated in 2021 that the total funding needed to clean up active, inactive and former defense sites was $31 billion, though its cleanup budget request in fiscal year 2021 was just $1.3 billion. But the Pentagon’s estimates include only costs for sites known to require cleanup. They do not include what is likely the full cost of cleaning up hundreds of other contaminated sites.  

EWG estimates that the ongoing investigation and future cleanup of PFAS at the 700 known and suspected DOD contamination sites could cost tens of billions of dollars in coming years. At the Pentagon’s current pace, that cost – on top of the $31 billion cleanup backlog that doesn’t include the full cost of PFAS cleanup – means many installations won’t be cleaned up for 50 years or more.

It already looks as if PFAS cleanup will increase overall cleanup costs sharply. The DOD is just beginning to assess the scope of the contamination crisis. The Pentagon recently said it expects to need $7 billion after fiscal year 2023 to address PFAS pollution. That’s $2.2 billion over its earlier estimate, just a few months ago, and nearly $5 billion more than it estimated at the end of 2021

Growth in Defense Department cleanup backlog outstrips funding

PFAS cleanup table

The DOD hasn’t yet estimated the full cost of cleaning up PFAS-contaminated sites, though Congress required the Pentagon to give it this information by last September.

Congress has tried to kick-start DOD cleanups by budgeting more than the Pentagon has requested. For fiscal year 2023, the Pentagon requested $1.4 billion for cleanups, and Congress budgeted $2.2 billion. For its fiscal year 2024 budget, now being debated in Congress, the DOD requested $1.5 billion – $700 million less than the amount budgeted for fiscal year 2023.

“The department’s funding requests keep disappointing communities that are impacted by PFAS,” said John Reeder, EWG vice president for federal affairs. “Our analysis shows Congress must give much more funding, or the problem will keep getting worse.”

EWG recommends that Congress provide at least $2.75 billion in total PFAS cleanup funding in fiscal year 2024. That would amount to $2 billion for active military sites under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program and $750 million to clean up former military installations through the department’s base closure account.

Service members, military communities and farmers need the cleanup of toxic PFAS pollution to move much more quickly – they have waited far too long.

Some PFAS have been linked to a higher risk of harm to the immune system, such as reduced vaccine efficacy; harm to the development and the reproductive system, such as reduced birth weight and impacts on fertility; increased risk of certain cancers, like breast cancer; and effects on metabolism.


MEDIA NOTE: The DOD’s cleanup funding levels for FY 2019-2023 are available here:

  • National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2019
  • National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020
  • National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2021
  • National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2022
  • National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2023


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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