Contamination cleanup crisis pose serious threats to both the environment and human health.The US Environment Protection Agency has been maintaining and updating a list of national priority areas based on the release or threatened release of hazardous substances.
The National Priorities List was enacted in 1980 by Congress to ensure proper cleanup efforts are directed for the sake of military members, servicemen, and civilians residing in and around potentially contaminated areas.
Did you know that there are currently over 1800 cleanup sites around the US? Moreover, the US Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works found that out of these, at least 180 sites are contaminated with one of the most toxic chemicals – Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.
These chemicals are mostly released through coatings in modern cookware, semiconductors, construction sites, and fire response sites in the form of Class B firefighting foams (Aqueous Film Forming Foams or AFFFs). The cleaning up of PFAS from the environment (air, water, or soil) is a mammoth task that requires huge amounts of funding.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report of 2021 warned of a steep hike in cleanup costs in the upcoming years. In the same year, US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Alex Padilla introduced the ‘Military Families Act’ and the ‘Filthy Fifty Act’ to direct the Department of Defense’s efforts toward priority cleaning of US military bases.
A whopping $10 billion was invested in this regard, but 2023 data shows poor progress on the Pentagon’s part. This article explores the Pentagon’s contamination cleanup crisis closely.
Challenges Involved in PFAS Remediation
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are chemicals composed of a strong carbon-fluoride bond. In fact, scientists have found that this chemical bond is the strongest known in human existence to date. Though PFAS are highly effective in putting out liquid fuel fires, the strong bond is a major concern from environmental and health perspectives.
The fluorine used in PFAS is nowhere close to the element found in the periodic table. This means it is highly unnatural and barely biodegradable. PFAS are strongly resistant to heat, oil, and water, with particularly low reactivity.
This means these chemicals can easily stay in the environment for years down the line (maybe indefinitely). They can also bio-accumulate within animal and human tissues, staying in the blood forever and posing health hazards. Several AFFF lawsuits have been filed against the Federal Court by firefighters, airport first responders, etc., due to the following health issues:
- Colorectal cancer
- Liver cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Liver cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
According to TorHoerman Law, the two most prominent defendants in this multi-district litigation are 3M and DuPont. These companies are the largest manufacturers of AFFFs, and 3M was the company to originally discover these compounds back in the 1960s. Some plaintiffs have also filed a lawsuit against Ansul and Kidde-Fenwal.
As per a recent AFFF lawsuit update, 3M and the Plaintiff Leadership Committee filed a joint motion to delay the trial set to begin. As per the motion, the defendant is willing to make negotiations instead of proceeding forth with trial preparations.
The plaintiffs are currently looking forward to settlements following a three-week postponement as approved by the MDL Judge. It is estimated that 3M has proposed a total of $10 billion to settle claims against it.
As many as 3,300 plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit against AFFF manufacturers. The fact that 3M is willing to negotiate is irrefutable proof that PFA remediation is challenging, maybe even impossible. As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) further studies the link between PFAs and cancer through its National Firefighter Registry, the Pentagon is still reeling under the pressure of contamination cleanup.
Case Studies: Looking at Cleanup Efforts through a Microscopic Lens for Contamination cleanup crisis
Since the early 1970s, the harmful effects of PFAs have been known. However, the Pentagon and the Environment Protection Agency seemed to have downplayed it all this time. In recent years, the full force of decades of PFA contamination has been visible through exorbitant cleanup costs.
The EPA has released details of PFA cleanup sites to date as it manages the National Federal Facility Superfund Program. Let’s take a look at the cleanup progress –
1. The F.E. Warren Air Force Base
Situated nearly three miles West of Cheyenne, the F.E. Warren Air Force Base is a 5860-acre strip of land utilized for historic munitions. In 1998, the closed firing ranges of this Air Force Base were found to be contaminated with PFAs.
Cleanup efforts were directed toward munitions and explosives. It was found that metal debris had made its way through the soil, so the solidification technique was used to immobilize residual metals. Nearly 3064 anomalies were addressed, and 315 acres of land stand protected under the Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS).
2. The Iowa Army Ammunition Plant
This Ammunition Plant is located in South-Eastern Iowa, covering nearly 19,000 acres of government-owned land. Between 1947 and 1975, hazardous substances (including PFAs) were released into the soil, water bodies, and air due to historical operations.
This site made it to the NPL in 1990, and cleanup efforts were finalized and started in 2006. Remedial efforts were carried out under eight Operable Units (OUs). It was only in 2018 that the EPA approved the Remedial Action Completion Report, removing the area from the NPL list. Around 20 acres stand protected under the LUCS, and over 200,000 metric tons of soil was cleaned.
3. Dover AFB
The Dover AFB at Dover, Delaware, was the 436th Airlift Wing’s operation base. This 3700-acre land was used to dump industrial contaminants across 23 different sites. Nearly 23,000 cubic feet of waste were disposed of for almost two decades (1951 to 1970).
The wastes were dumped across 12 landfills that contaminated the groundwater. This water was supplied to nearly 40,000 people living both on base and within a three-mile radius. Cleanup efforts started back in 1995 and took around three years to complete. 11 million gallons of groundwater were removed (since it was contaminated with PFAs).
Since 1998, the EPA has run several five-year reviews to protect public health.
The National Superfund Program was initially started as a quick-fix scheme for remedial efforts in contamination sites. It was estimated that just within 15 years, the Pentagon would be able to successfully clean up major PFA contamination sites.
But as said by John Reeder, the Environment Working Group’s Vice President, “the crisis is only getting bigger, not better.” According to this Non-Profit, the Pentagon and EPA’s downplaying has come at higher-than-expected costs. Despite the $10 billion funding in 2021, little to no progress is visible.
The EPA has demanded funding of $2.75 billion as a part of Fiscal 2024 for PFA contamination cleanup (starting October 1st).
This amount is still nowhere close to the proposed $31 billion needed to clean up 300+ Department of Defense locations partially or completely contaminated with PFAs. If immediate funding is not received, PFAs will spread to nearby areas, further raising cleanup costs.
This will adversely impact the environment and all forms of life. It’s high time that the Pentagon makes tangible progress in breaking free of this vicious cycle.
Pentagon’s Proposed Solution for Contamination cleanup crisis
In light of the hazards associated with AFFFs or PFA-containing firefighting foams, legislation across the world is in place to restrict their use in emergency situations. However, countries are serious about completely banning them as fluorine-free alternatives appear on the horizon.
For instance, the US Government has decided to stop all use of AFFFs by 2024, and Europe has passed legislation to ban AFFFs by July 2025. That being said, the Pentagon itself has decided to halt the use of PFA-containing firefighting foams because of the high cleanup costs.
To date, over 700 military installations have been discovered where PFAs may have leached into the soil. The Pentagon is still concerned that since PFAs are so effective and still widely used, cleanup costs are only going to mount further.
However, it hopes to see alternatives soon, replacing these hydrocarbons for the betterment of public health and the environment.
The Failed Shortcut and the Future of Funding
Contamination cleanup crisis demand immediate and coordinated action to restore affected environments and protect human health.As per the recent report of the Environment Working Group, there is around a $4 billion increase in cleanup costs than originally estimated.
The EWG’s President has stated that the Congress needs to increase its funding or the problem will only perpetuate.
If the Pentagon does not receive adequate funding to sustain its cleanup efforts, PFA contamination sites may remain contaminated for the next 50 years or more. In the meantime, cleanup costs will further rise, and the forever chemicals will continue to harm the environment and all forms of life.