GAO: ‘Forever chemicals’ cleanup costs for Defense Department sites will increase ‘significantly’

WASHINGTON – A new Government Accountability Office report finds the expected costs of cleaning up the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS from Defense Department installations will “likely increase significantly” beyond the billions of dollars DOD has already estimated.

The report by the non-partisan GAO also confirms the Environmental Working Group’s analysis showing the Pentagon has made little progress cleaning up its most contaminated military sites. In fiscal year 2021 alone, DOD predicts it will need more than $2.1 billion for PFAS cleanups and investigation, but GAO’s report shows even that funding falls short of what’s needed.

“The GAO report confirms two key points: that the DOD has made little progress cleaning up legacy PFAS pollution and that the cost of cleanup is going to grow,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Congress should move quickly to set deadlines for cleanup and to provide the DOD the resources needed to get the job done.”

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) have introduced bills to set deadlines and provide $10 billion for cleanups.

DOD is developing PFAS cleanup plans under the Superfund law for only nine out of 50 Air Force or Navy bases with some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination, according to recently released DOD documents. The Pentagon has yet to finalize a single cleanup plan for any of those nine bases, and little actual cleanup work is happening.

Yet the need for swift and well-funded cleanups is urgent, as EWG’s analysis identified and mapped 703 military sites with known or suspected discharges of PFAS. At many of those bases, DOD has completed inspections only – the first of eight Superfund remediation steps – to determine how much PFAS is present. It has not yet taken any additional steps.

Although some cleanup actions might not yet be public, at this pace it could be decades before DOD cleans up the most contaminated sites. Last year, a top Pentagon official told Congress it could take more than 30 years to clean up PFAS pollution.

“If my neighbors sent a toxic plume under my fence, they would not get 30 years to clean it up,” Faber said. “The Defense Department should be a better neighbor to defense communities.”

The GAO report identifies dozens of neighboring communities affected by DOD PFAS pollution that spreads beyond installations. Exposure to PFAS increases the risk of cancer, harms the development of the fetus and reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.

PFAS contaminate the water supply in more than 2,000 locations nationwide, and some of the highest detections have been recorded at military installations. Detections above 100,000 parts per trillion, or ppt, were detected in the groundwater at more than 64 military sites, with detections above 1 million ppt for a single type of PFAS at 14 sites.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory for the two most notorious PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, in drinking water, is 70 ppt. A number of states have significantly stricter cleanup standards, and some independent studies say a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is 1 ppt, a standard EWG endorses.

DOD is giving drinking water to service members at contaminated bases that contains PFAS above the EPA advisory level, but has done almost no cleanup of soil or groundwater.

The facilities where DOD has begun to develop Superfund cleanup plans for PFAS contamination are Dover Air Force Base in Delaware; Edwards Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, both in California; Eglin Air Force Base in Florida; Eielson and Galena Air Force bases, both in Alaska; Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota; Horsham Air Guard Station in Pennsylvania; and Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.

DOD has yet to finalize plans for the bases with the highest detections, those with more than 2 million ppt of PFAS detected in groundwater, including England Air Force Base in Louisiana, Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina, Naval Air Station China Lake in California and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.


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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