Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics'

Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics'
© Greg Nash

Former Navy pilot and astronaut and now freshman Sen. Mark KellyMark KellyFive Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Biden's pick for Arizona's US Attorney confirmed by Senate Cook Political Report shifts three Senate races toward Republicans MORE (D-Ariz.) is working to build his on-the-job experience before a re-election challenge next year. That’s likely one reason that he chaired a Senate subcommittee hearing this month about drought in the West. His opening remarks included a shout-out to constituents: “We’ve got this old saying in Arizona that ‘whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.’”

But that fight for water goes well beyond the Colorado River and a shrinking Lake Mead to “tributaries” that run through environmental pressure groups, the Pentagon, and the “other chamber” on Capitol Hill.

A case in point is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and a House-passed provision concerning an acronym that Kelly may come to regard as a four-letter word politically: PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They comprise a class of heat-resistant chemicals used in various globally manufactured products such as nonstick pans, adhesives, wire insulation, food packaging, waterproof clothes and even spacesuits. House Democrats thrust the PFAS Action Act of 2021 into the NDAA because it likely wouldn’t pass both chambers as a standalone bill. 

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Yet, as written, the PFAS verbiage was so extreme it would derail military procurement. It was too much for the Biden White House, which quietly pushed back via an Office of Management and Budget memo noting such a provision “would prohibit [the Department of Defense] from procuring a wide range of items” and that “some of these products may not have PFAS-free alternatives available.” 

Kelly’s life experience could help him amplify those concerns from his assignments on the Armed Services, Energy and Natural Resources, and Environment and Public Works committees. It’s a perfect combination of posts from which to balance clean water resources with military readiness — both important national priorities.

While the manufacture of PFAS has been phased out in the United States because of long-term health concerns, primarily residues from fire-fighting foams, they’re still produced overseas. Since the military has about 750 bases and installations worldwide, an immediate halt to buying all products that may contain PFAS would render the supply system useless.

Before his days wearing a spacesuit, Kelly and his Navy shipmates relied on PFAS, most notably contained in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF). The Navy regards AFFF as the best way to put out fuel oil fires aboard ships. In fact, AFFF was developed in the late 1960s, following the tragic fire aboard the USS Forrestal (CV-59) off Vietnam that was narrowly escaped by another Navy pilot who later served Arizona in the Senate — John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE

In his 2020 campaign, a special election to fill McCain’s seat, Kelly persuaded Arizona voters to favorably compare him by emphasizing similar military service, while downplaying different partisan labels. But while McCain relished “going rogue” in the Senate, Kelly cast himself as a “practical problem-solver.”

Now that he is completing the remainder of McCain’s final term, striking a balance between environmental protection and military readiness will test that claim. Though he’s probably feeling the heat from green energy activists who may lack relevant experience and expertise on this issue, Kelly might want to consider the comments of Capitol Hill colleagues who don’t feel such heat. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersWashington redistricting panel reaches late agreement on new lines McMorris Rodgers worried broadband funding will miss mark without new maps The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Budget negotiators: 72 hours and counting MORE (R.-Wash.), who spent 13 years in her family’s fruit and orchard business, noted the PFAS Action Act is “overwhelming, heavy-handed and unscientific” and an “aggressive expansion of federal power.” Rep. Larry BucshonLarry Dean BucshonPeanut Butter and Jelly make debut ahead of White House turkey pardon Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics' Lawmakers push for more funding on chronic kidney disease treatment MORE (R.-Ind.) criticized the absence of a provision to exempt medical devices, which he knows a little something about as a heart surgeon. And Rep. Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergHouse passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics' Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — West Coast wildfires drive East Coast air quality alerts MORE (R.-Mich.), from an area known for water quality issues, noted that it goes too far, sets unrealistic timetables and opens up water companies to legal liability even if they meet government-approved guidelines.

In the final analysis, the most important principle for an officeholder to remember is what they see at home. Having represented Arizonans for a dozen years in Congress, I know they rightly treasure finite natural resources such as clean water. Yet, most also appreciate the fact that our armed forces exist to fight and win wars. With common sense, those concerns aren’t mutually exclusive.

The military should not be held hostage to “water politics.” Our service members who volunteered to defend this country deserve better.

J.D. Hayworth, a Republican, represented Arizona in the United States House of Representatives from 1995-2007. A former talk show host on Newsmax, he is owner of The Great 48th Group LLC, a communications and public policy consultancy.