The number of active and former U.S. military installations found to be contaminated with chemical compounds found in firefighting foam is expected to rise as a Defense Department task force investigates the scope of the problem, the group's chairman said Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Bob McMahon told reporters during a media roundtable that he "expects to see growth [in the number of bases contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS] as we begin to get a better understanding and better characterization of where we are."
"This is going to only improve over time. ... I will tell you up front, we know there's probably holes in the data," he said.
At the direction of Defense Secretary Mark Esper in July, the Pentagon established a task force to study the chemicals -- found in aqueous firefighting foam used on military installations -- and the potential impact they have on personnel and the environment.
The group is charged with focusing on the health effects of contamination, cleanup standards and performance, finding science-supported standards for exposure and cleanup, and coordinating agencies to address the problems.
It also is tasked with finding a PFAS-free firefighting foam or funding the development of one.
Last year, the DoD examined 524 installations for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals in aqueous firefighting foam, perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and found 401 with some level of contamination. Twenty-four of those had drinking water contamination at levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
On Wednesday, environmental advocates from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that 90 more current and former Army and Army National Guard installations had levels of ground or drinking water contamination than previously indicated.
He insisted, however, that no military personnel or family members whose drinking water comes from Defense Department-managed water sources are consuming levels of PFAS higher than the lifetime health advisory limit.
While he could not say how many military personnel and their families live in communities where the municipal water supply or well water is contaminated with PFAS, he added that, in those cases, the Pentagon plans to be part of the solution.
"We are committed to ensuring that we have a safe place for our people and their families to live, work, play and pray," McMahon said.
PFAS chemicals are linked to birth defects, infertility, developmental delays and some cancers. The DoD began widespread testing for contamination in drinking water at its facilities in 2016, followed by testing of groundwater on and near military installations.
PFAS chemicals have been found in the drinking water of 19 million Americans in 49 states, and unreleased EPA data show that up to 110 million people may have PFAS-contaminated drinking water, according to EWG, which maintains a map of contaminated sites, including military and civilian locations.
McMahon said the task force has generated 40 recommendations and goals, from short-term fixes to long-term solutions to address PFAS-related issues.
He declined to provide specifics, saying he has not shown Esper the group's list. But he promised that the task force's goals would focus on health concerns, funding and methodology for cleanup and finding new solutions for fighting fires on military installations and ships.
"This is an integral part of taking care of our people. ... It's equally as important, I think, for us to recognize that we have a responsibility for the communities that surround our installations," McMahon said.
The military services' track record for recognizing and admitting environmental exposures on its bases in combat has not been good, from long-standing problems at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with contamination of the base's water supplies; to mass spillages of industrial solvents at the now-closed Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California; to hundreds of sites across the U.S. that are contaminated with military munitions.
McMahon promised that the PFAS investigation would be different, starting with a website that will provide information and data on PFAS contamination at all current and former military bases.
"One of the things we want to do as part of this task force is establishing and improving transparency, the ability to put data out there so it's easily accessible," he said.
EWG officials noted, however, that the DoD has not only been slow to recognize the problem of PFAS, it has fought cleaning up the contamination for years.
"The military helped create PFAS-based firefighting foams and has understood the risks for decades," EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh said Wednesday in a news release. "It's outrageous that the Defense Department is now fighting efforts to address a contamination crisis they helped create."
PFAS chemicals are used in industry and consumer products such as food packaging, commercial household products, stain- and water-repellent fabrics, non-stick cookware, polishes, waxes and paint.
McMahon said one of the DoD's goals is to determine its contribution to water contamination at military bases and nearby communities by tracing sources of PFOS and PFOA and solving any issues found.
He added, however, that the DoD is not the sole source of widespread PFAS and the response to eliminating these substances from wells and groundwater must be done by communities and corporations that caused the problems, as well as the federal government.
"This is a national issue, and it has to have a national solution. ... The reality, as you all know, is PFAS compounds are used in a myriad of things," he said.
During a hearing earlier this year, DoD officials said the cost of the cleanup may be as high as $2 billion. But Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Environment Maureen Sullivan said Thursday that was "really a wild guess" based on rough calculations during congressional testimony.
"We've spent about $200 million a year for 10 years; that would be $2 billion. I think it's going to be bigger than that ... really. There was no factoring in of cleanup levels, no factoring in of technologies, it was just a general [estimate]. It's going to be somewhere in that vicinity," Sullivan said.
She added that the department already faces $27 billion in environmental cleanup jobs without factoring in PFOS and PFOA.
The military services no longer use PFAS-based firefighting foam in land-based training and, when it is used in emergencies, the site is treated as an environmental cleanup zone after, McMahon said.
Navy ships continue to use the foam.
McMahon said part of the task force's job will be to coordinate with the Department of Veterans Affairs to "understand what the relationship should be" regarding any health effects but stopped short of saying the DoD would seek to establish a service connection for any rating or military occupational specialty with frequent exposure.