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: Marines find human remains after training accident | Fourth service member killed by COVID-19 | Pompeo huddles with Taliban negotiator Trump participates in swearing-in of first African American service chief Overnight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response 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.” 

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Esper gave the task force six months to report back.

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 TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary 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 PetersTensions flare as GOP's Biden probe ramps up  House committee requests hearing with postmaster general amid mail-in voting concerns Senators press Postal Service over complaints of slow delivery 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.