Critics accuse EPA of weakening pollution rule for Pentagon

Critics accuse EPA of weakening pollution rule for Pentagon
© Stefani Reynolds

Critics say an Environment Protection Agency (EPA) proposal would weaken the Pentagon's obligation to deal with harmful chemicals that pollute groundwater near military bases.

They say the proposal, released Thursday, is the result of a long military effort to weaken EPA standards on cleaning up chemical pollution.

“If reports are true that the DOD [Department of Defense] pressured the EPA to weaken PFAS cleanup standards, this is wholly unacceptable and is inconsistent with assurances that Acting [Defense] Secretary [Patrick] Shanahan gave me on the Pentagon’s commitment to address PFAS contamination,” Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenEpstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse House Dems, Senate GOP build money edge to protect majorities Crucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research MORE (D-N.H.) wrote on Twitter. “We cannot afford to take a step backward on addressing PFAS contamination.”

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The fight is over a group of nonstick chemicals typically referred to as PFAS, which are used in everything from Teflon pans and food wrappers to raincoats. But the chemicals are also a key ingredient in firefighting foam, which is used heavily on military bases and leaves the chemicals seeping into groundwater that often supplies the drinking water for nearby communities.

After decades of use, there is growing evidence of the health risk of PFAS. The substance causes various types of cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and other illnesses. It’s also doesn’t break down easily — studies have found the substance in the blood of 98 percent of people.

Critics say EPA’s proposal, which will now go through a 45-day comment period, does little to address the contamination present at as many as 400 military sites. They say the rules would allow the Pentagon to take years to begin cleaning up PFAS pollution at many sites.

“They don’t compel any meaningful action at the sites already known to be polluted,” Sonya Lunder, senior toxics adviser at the Sierra Club, said in a statement about the proposal.

“There are hundreds of communities contaminated by military activities and industrial emissions, and most have drank contaminated water for decades," Lunder continued. "We do not have the luxury of waiting any longer. We need immediate action to protect women, children and communities most exposed to these dangerous chemicals.”

Democratic senators expressed concern earlier this year that other agencies, including the Pentagon, might try to weaken EPA standards. In March, they wrote to a number of agency heads requesting documents on any “interagency dispute related to how stringent the guidelines should be.”

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards MORE (D-Del.), one of the signatories of the letter, said EPA’s proposal “fails to adequately protect public health from this emerging crisis."

"[EPA] Administrator [Andrew] Wheeler himself said that safe drinking water is the greatest environmental challenge facing our world, yet, again, we see that EPA is not addressing this issue in the manner in which it demands, nor with the urgency in which Americans deserve.”

When EPA first considered a potential rule on addressing PFAS contamination, the agency and Pentagon were far apart on what standards to implement.

EPA recommends water have no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS. The Department of Defense (DOD) had argued they shouldn’t be held responsible for cleanup unless those levels reach a much higher level, 380 ppt.

The difference in those numbers goes beyond the pollution level of water. Raising the threshold for cleanup would cut the number of military sites considered contaminated and save the Pentagon potentially millions on what could be a $2 billion cleanup tab.

Though EPA's proposal would cover a greater number of sites than the military's suggested contamination level, critics say it does not require the immediate cleanup of the sites.

Missing from the proposal is a measure that would have allowed the EPA to take emergency action on its own to clean up sites with more than 400 ppt of PFAS and later bill the government agency or entity responsible for the pollution.

Betsy Southerland, a former director of the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology in the Office of Water, helped develop the 70 ppt recommendation for the agency at the tail end of the Obama administration. She said the removal of the emergency measure is “the worst thing about this guidance.”

One of the biggest concerns, she said, is how long it may take for DOD to take action.

“It can take a long time to clean that up 'cause then it’s not an emergency. You can take your time, do a lot more studies, evaluate all the different possible actions you can take to curtail the pollution," Southerland said.

"So, it can be years until communities get a response from the Department of Defense or a private party,” Southerland continued. “You can just take your sweet time.”

Corry Schiermeyer, an EPA spokeswoman, defended the proposal, calling it a critical tool that marks the first time the agency has taken action to address PFAS contamination of groundwater.

DOD did not respond to questions about the agency’s push for different standards.

"We support the public comment process and look forward to working with EPA to implement the final guidance document," said Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Congress has pressured the Pentagon to address pollution issues, including in the current year’s budget more than $134 million specifically for cleanup. This year, there are at least 13 bills that would require action on PFAS, some directed specifically at the military.

Shaheen had previously asked Shanahan, the Pentagon acting secretary, to confirm reports that the military was pushing EPA to weaken its standards on PFAS. Shanhan denied those reports in an April 10 letter to the senator.

“The department is not seeking a different or weaker cleanup standard,” Shanahan wrote.

For its part, EPA has also come under fire for its own handling of PFAS.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowGOP Senate challenger in Michigan raises .5 million in less than a month It's time to let Medicare to negotiate drug prices Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record MORE (D-Mich.), who has sponsored several bills dealing with PFAS, said EPA’s latest proposal “is completely unacceptable and does not do enough to protect public health.”

The agency has long been criticized for moving too slowly in dealing with the chemicals, particularly after states started passing their own drinking water standards for PFAS, often at a level below what the EPA currently says is safe.  

Southerland said the 70 ppt recommendation she helped develop in 2016 has languished at the Trump EPA — the agency announced in February it would begin the process of evaluating setting a firm PFAS standard for drinking water.