Congress: Tell the Pentagon to halt incineration of toxic forever chemicals

Congress: Tell the Pentagon to halt incineration of toxic forever chemicals
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For 50 years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has known that military-grade firefighting foam, known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF, is toxic. Now in defiance of Congress, it is racing to burn it at incinerators across the country.

What makes AFFF so toxic is a class of manmade chemicals known as PFAS, which are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their incredibly strong chemical bond. Exposure to PFAS is associated with a variety of health risks, including cancer, thyroid disruption, reproductive and developmental harms and suppressed immune system function.  

Analysis of new data recently released from the Pentagon shows that 678 DoD and National Guard installations across the country are confirmed or suspected to be contaminated with PFAS. 

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When discharges of PFAS from industrial sources like those that make PFAS chemicals or AFFF are factored in, it is estimated that drinking water supplies for 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS.

The Pentagon is aware that widespread PFAS contamination of groundwater and drinking water in many places across the country falls squarely on its shoulders. 

After replacing older formulations of AFFF with a newer one containing different PFAS chemicals, DoD is now sitting on large stockpiles of legacy AFFF. 

The military’s preferred method of disposing of legacy firefighting foams is incineration, even though there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it is safe, especially for people living near the incinerators. 

DoD has contracts with incinerators to burn legacy AFFF, despite a lack of evidence showing that incineration fully destroys these forever chemicals. 

The same characteristics that make AFFF ideal for suppressing high temperature jet fuel fires make them incredibly difficult to destroy. The Trump Environmental Protection Agency stated that we don’t yet have complete understanding about how effectively incineration destroys PFAS compounds. 

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Research shows that PFAS emitted through air stacks can travel several miles downwind from facilities emitting PFAS, like incinerators, where it deposits in soil and water. 

In April, a team of researchers at Bennington College shared important new data indicating that the Norlite hazardous waste incinerator in Cohoes, N.Y., is likely contaminating the surrounding community with PFAS as a result of burning more than 2 million pounds of AFFF from the military.

The Bennington College test results found a pattern of PFAS contamination in soil and water samples that suggest that the burning of AFFF at the Norlite facility is not breaking down these dangerous PFAS chemicals so much as redistributing them in nearby poor and working-class neighborhoods. 

According to a lawsuit filed by several community groups in February, the military has also burned PFAS or is currently burning PFAS at incinerators not only at Norlite in Cohoes, N.Y., but also at incinerators in Ohio and Arkansas. Meanwhile, incinerators in Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio and Texas are authorized to burn AFFF, and one in Alaska is authorized to burn PFAS-contaminated soils. 

After Bennington College released its results, the City of Cohoes Common Council voted to impose a one-year moratorium on PFAS incineration at the Norlite facility.

Although this is a temporary relief for the people living downwind from Norlite, communities in places like Ohio, Nebraska, Illinois and Arkansas are now at a greater risk that the incinerators in their states may be next in line to receive the military’s shipments of legacy AFFF temporarily not being burned at Norlite. 

Last year, Congress wisely included provisions in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, requiring the EPA to publish a guidance document for disposal of PFAS, including incineration of AFFF, and require that any AFFF incineration conducted by the military completely destroy the PFAS chemicals. 

Yet in a sharp rebuke of Congress, the Pentagon has continued to move full speed ahead with its plans to burn its AFFF stockpiles, even alleging in court filings that its existing contracts to burn legacy AFFF are not bound by the FY2020 NDAA provisions. 

As Congress prepares to write this year’s NDAA, it must ensure that the Pentagon immediately halts the incineration of AFFF.

To be clear, much still needs to be done to clean up the extensive PFAS contamination at military installations across the country as well as help the firefighters and military families who have suffered as a result. The Pentagon needs to rapidly increase its research and development dollars on environmentally sound alternatives to  incineration. 

But surely, Congress would agree that as taxpayer resources are going to assist the Pentagon with cleaning up their toxic legacy, that we don’t make the problem even worse by incinerating AFFF and transferring the problem from the water to the air. This makes no sense and needs to stop immediately.

Judith Enck is a former regional administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a visiting professor at Bennington College.