Military starts task force after spreading toxic "forever chemicals"

Military starts task force after spreading toxic "forever chemicals"
© Greg Nash

Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Mattis downplays Afghanistan papers | 'We probably weren't that good at' nation building | Judiciary panel approves two impeachment articles | Stage set for House vote next week Top Pentagon official announces resignation, second within week Hillicon Valley: Pentagon pushes back on Amazon lawsuit | Lawmakers dismiss Chinese threat to US tech companies | YouTube unveils new anti-harassment policy | Agencies get annual IT grades MORE created a task force to review the military’s obligation in cleaning up contamination of cancer-linked “forever chemicals” in his first act at the helm of the Department of Defense.

A class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS are used in non-stick products ranging from teflon pans to raincoats, but the heavy use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam by military has contributed to water contamination across the country. PFAS’s persistence in the environment has earned it the “forever chemical” nickname.

“The Department is committed to taking a strong and proactive stance to address the effects arising out of any releases of these substances from all defense activities including the National Guard and Reserves. We must approach the problem in an aggressive and holistic way, ensuring a coordinated DOD-wide approach to the issue,” Esper wrote in a memo establishing the taskforce.

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Esper was sworn in as Secretary of Defense late Tuesday night.

There are at least 400 military sites with PFAS contamination, and the chemical has often spread to the water supply of nearby communities. The cleanup tab is estimated to be $2 billion.

But the military has come under heavy criticism for it’s response to PFAS, including accusations the agency pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken its proposed regulations on PFAS--a move likely to save the military a substantive amount of money. 

The Air Force has already had to divert $66 million designated for other purposes to cover cleanup costs tied to PFAS. 

The military’s new PFAS task force would be responsible for devising PFAS cleanup standards, finding an alternative firefighting foam without PFAS, and addressing “Public/Congress perceptions of DoD's efforts.” 

Esper gave the task force six months to report back.

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Lawmakers have been putting increasing pressure on the military to take greater responsibility for cleanup, including adding several measures to both the House and Senate versions of the defense policy bill that require DOD to work with states to clean up the contamination.

Those bills include the requirement to phase out use of PFAS firefighting foam, hence Esper’s directive to find a replacement. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE, however, has threatened to veto the House bill, mentioning specifically the portion that requires phasing out such firefighting foams.

Esper’s task force was applauded by Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersTrump to hold campaign rally in Michigan Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing GOP set for all-out battle over Michigan Senate seat MORE (D-Mich.), whose state has widespread PFAS contamination.

“I’m encouraged that this is one of the first actions Secretary Esper is taking as Defense Secretary. PFAS contamination exposure and contamination needs to be taken seriously and must be addressed. I look forward to reviewing the task force’s findings, but in the meantime, I’ll continue pressing for additional actions the Department can take,” he said in a statement.