Energy & Environment

DOD officials defend military’s handling of toxic chemicals at tense hearing

The Pentagon is seen on Thursday, November 4, 2021 in Arlington, Va.
Greg Nash

Officials testifying before a Senate panel on Thursday defended the Pentagon’s handling of toxic chemicals after a watchdog report this summer said the military’s inaction had exposed people to “preventable” risks.

Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, defense official Richard Kidd said that the agency was alerted about the chemicals, known as PFAS, in the 1990s, when manufacturers issued health notices.

But, he said during the hearing, the department was justified in not taking actions to manage PFAS-related risks until 2016.

“The Department of Defense learned about the health hazards posed by PFAS basically at the same pace as the rest of America,” said Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy resilience at the Pentagon’s sustainment office. 

“The manufacturers of PFAS issued health notices in the 1990s, which sort of triggered initial reviews of the chemical, but it was not until 2016 where we had a final health advisory from the [Environmental Protection Agency] that we were able to take objective, measurable actions,” he said. 

Later in the hearing, Kidd also said that the military had presumed that chemical companies would take action to mitigate the risks from their own products. 

“Industry started to express concerns about these chemicals in the 1990s and the presumption of the country at the time was that industry would voluntarily fix by replacing or removing PFAS in [firefighting] foam,” he said. 

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) met the response with skepticism, asking the official, “You defer to industry the health and safety of service members and their families and surrounding communities?”

Kidd said that this was “the accepted practice at the time for this chemical,” citing regulatory agencies.  

PFAS, which standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used in military firefighting foam. The use of these foams has resulted in contamination in areas near some military bases. 

They have been linked to health issues including kidney and testicular cancer as thyroid and immune system problems. 

The substances are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they build up in the body over time instead of breaking down. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found PFAS in the blood of nearly all the people that it tested, indicating “widespread” exposure in the American public.

The hearing comes after a report this summer from the Defense Department’s inspector general found that in 2011, defense officials issued an alert describing risks to human health and the environment. 

But, it said, the agency didn’t take action to manage these risks until 2016.

The report determined that because of the military’s inaction, “people and the environment may have been exposed to preventable risks from PFAS‑containing [firefighting foam].”

During his opening statement on Thursday, Kidd also hinted that addressing the chemicals could be a lengthy process. 

“Based on what we know today, it will take years to define the scope of our clean-up and decades before it is complete,” he said.

But he said the department has a “robust” research and development effort underway to try to “accelerate clean-up.”

Tags Alex Padilla forever chemicals PFAS Senate panel

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