The Pentagon has made almost no progress in cleaning up the military installations that are some of the most contaminated with the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, according to an EWG review of Defense Department records.
Of 50 Air Force or Navy bases with some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination, only nine have cleanup plans being developed under the Superfund law, according to the most recent documents made public by the Defense Department. Not a single cleanup plan has been finalized for those nine bases, and little actual cleanup has begun.
More than five years ago, under a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency, Defense completed testing for PFAS in drinking water at 63 installations. EWG has since identified and mapped 703 military sites with known or suspected discharges of PFAS.
At the greatest number of the bases where records were reviewed by EWG – 21 sites – Defense has completed the inspection stage only, which includes determining how much PFAS is present, a preliminary stage of the eight steps outlined in the Superfund environmental remediation process (see chart below).
Summary of PFAS cleanup status at U.S. military sites
|Site inspection recommended||2|
|Site inspection underway||2|
|Site inspection completed||21|
|Relative risk site evaluation completed||13|
|Remedial investigation pending funding||3|
|Remedial investigation underway||8|
|Partial clean up underway||1|
Source: EWG, from DOD administrative reports available as of April 30, 2021
Source: EWG, from Department of Defense Manual, March 2012
Some cleanup actions may not have been made public yet. But at this pace, it could be decades before the most contaminated military sites get cleaned up. Last year, a deputy assistant Defense secretary reported to Congress that it could take more than 30 years to clean up PFAS pollution.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because once released into the environment, they do not break down, and they build up in our blood and organs. Exposure to PFAS increases the risk of cancer, harms the development of the fetus and reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.
PFAS contaminates 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, have been recorded in the groundwater at more than 64 military sites, and detections above 1 million ppt for a single type of PFAS have been recorded at 14 sites.
The EPA’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 more stringent cleanup standards, and some independent studies say a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is 1 ppt, a standard endorsed by EWG.
Defense is providing drinking water to service members on bases where PFAS contamination exceeds the EPA advisory level. But there has been little to no cleanup of PFAS pollution in the soil and groundwater.
The facilities where development of cleanup plans have begun 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.
No cleanup plans have been completed for the bases with the highest detections, 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. Each of these bases has reported a detection greater than 2 million ppt in groundwater.
Status of PFAS cleanup at 50 military bases
|Defense facility name||Cleanup status|
|Eielson Air Force Base||Remedial investigation underway|
|Galena Air Force Base||Remedial investigation underway|
|Eaker Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Fort Smith Municipal Airport||Site inspection completed|
|Edwards Air Force Base||Remedial investigation underway|
|Marine Corps Air Station Tustin||Remedial investigation underway|
|Mather Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Naval Air Station Alameda||Site inspection completed|
|Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake||Site inspection completed|
|Naval Construction Battalion Center Port Hueneme||Site inspection completed|
|Travis Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Buckley Air Force Base||Remedial investigation pending funding|
|Dover Air Force Base||Remedial investigation underway|
|Eglin Air Force Base||Remedial investigation underway|
|Jacksonville International Airport||Site inspection completed|
|MacDill Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Naval Air Station Jacksonville||Site inspection recommended|
|Patrick Air Force Base||Remedial investigation pending funding|
|Tyndall Air Force Base||Site Inspection completed|
|Moody Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Robins Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Chanute Air Force Base||Remedial investigation pending funding|
|Barksdale Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Barksdale Air Force Base||Site Inspection completed|
|Naval Research Laboratory Chesapeake Bay Detachment||Site inspection completed|
|Naval Air Station South Weymouth||Site inspection completed|
|Barksdale Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Columbus Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst - McGuire||Site inspection completed|
|Holloman Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station||Site inspection completed|
|Plattsburgh Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Seymour Johnson Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Minot Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Altus Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Vance Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Klamath Falls International Airport||Site inspection completed|
|Horsham Air Guard Station||Remedial investigation underway|
|Charleston Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Myrtle Beach Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Shaw Air Force Base||Partial clean up underway|
|Ellsworth Air Force Base||Remedial investigation underway|
|Joe Foss Field Air National Guard Base||Site inspection completed|
|Dyess Air Force Base||Site inspection completed|
|Grand Prairie Armed Forces Reserve Complex||Site inspection recommended|
|Joint Base San Antonio||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Randolph Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Sheppard Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Langley Air Force Base||Relative risk site evaluation completed|
|Naval Air Station Oceana||Site inspection completed|
Source: EWG, from Defense Department administrative reports available as of April 30, 2021
One of the primary reasons for the Defense Department’s glacial pace is the failure to classify PFAS as hazardous substances under Superfund. Until the EPA or Congress makes such a designation, the Pentagon is not required to make PFAS cleanup a priority.
Congress failed to include the hazardous substance designation in the last two versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, because of Republican opposition. President Biden has not yet designated PFAS as hazardous substances, despite pledging to do so.
The primary source of PFAS at military installations is aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, firefighting foam developed by the Defense Department in the 1960s and first required by the Navy and the Marine Corps in 1967. AFFF contains PFOS and can break down into other types of PFAS, including PFOA.
The Defense Department has long known about the toxic effects of PFAS pollution.
In 1973, an Air Force report cited the toxic effects of AFFF on fish and recommended the use of carbon filters for drinking water. Subsequent Air Force and Navy reports, in 1974, 1976 and 1978, also cited the toxic effects of AFFF on fish. In 1983, animal studies financed by the Air Force found that some PFAS were toxic. In 1985, Navy experts once again cited the toxic effects of AFFF on fish and, in 1989, called for better management of AFFF waste.
The Defense Department was alerted in 2000 that 3M, the primary maker of PFOS, was going to stop making it, after internal studies showed evidence of its health hazards. A 2001 Department of Defense memo concluded that the main ingredient in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic.” Months later, an EPA official reiterated to the department the risks posed not just by PFOS but by the entire class of PFAS chemicals.
But Defense officials waited another decade to issue a risk alert to service members and did not take steps to replace AFFF until 2015 – despite a 1991 Army Corps of Engineers recommendation that AFFF be replaced with nonhazardous substitutes. What’s more, the new PFAS in replacement foams have been linked to many of the same health effects as those caused by PFOS, ultimately leading Congress to direct Defense recently to phase out the use of fluorinated foams altogether.