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Installation Commanders to Discuss Firefighting Foam Issues With Communities

Nov. 20, 2019 | BY David Vergun , DOD News
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A senior Defense Department official met with Pentagon reporters last month to update them on the progress of DOD's PFAS Task Force, which was set up over the summer to address compounds that may have affected the drinking water on  military installations and surrounding communities.

A man speaks to a group of people while sitting at a table.
McMahon Meeting
Assistant Defense Secretary for Sustainment Robert H. McMahon speaks to reporters at a Pentagon media roundtable, Nov. 20, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee
VIRIN: 191120-D-WA993-1138

PFOS, perfluorooctane sulfonate and PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, are two chemicals of the larger class known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals are in firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. The foam is used by DOD and civilian firefighting organizations to rapidly extinguish fuel fires and protect against catastrophic loss of life and property. PFAS substances also are used in household products such as nonstick cookware, clothing, shoes, furniture and carpeting.

Robert H. McMahon, the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, said the task force is focusing national attention on efforts to find PFAS-free alternatives to AFFF that are as effective as AFFF in extinguishing fires. He also noted that DOD researchers and DOD-funded researchers have been working on this and will continue to do so.

A can of foam sits on the ground.
Foam Can
Aqueous film forming foam used for a Naval Research Laboratory test at the laboratory in Chesapeake Beach, Md., Oct. 25, 2019.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191025-D-UB488-012

The task force is also fostering partnerships with others who have a stake in this national issue, he said. They include the National Governors Association, the National League of Cities and other government agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services and NASA.

McMahon noted that the DOD is working especially close with the VA to coordinate actions to inform veterans who may have been exposed.

A person douses a  fire.
Fighting Flames
Stan Karwoski, a senior fire test technician at the Naval Research Laboratory, tests the effectiveness of aqueous film-forming foam by spraying it on a gasoline fire in a 28- square foot container. The test took place at the laboratory in Chesapeake Beach, Md., Oct. 25, 2019.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191025-D-UB488-010

Also, the department is working closely with the EPA to follow its guidelines. If those guidelines change, McMahon said, DOD is prepared to quickly adjust to whatever levels are set. 

Pending actions by the task force include sending a memorandum to all installation commanders to have continuing dialogues with community leaders and organizations to discuss the scope of the PFAS issue in their area, if one exists, and to discuss mitigation and remediation if applicable.

A can of foam sits on the ground.
Commercial Foam
Synthetic commercial foam used for a Naval Research Laboratory test at the laboratory in Chesapeake Beach, Md., Oct. 25, 2019.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191025-D-UB488-013

The task force will submit a full report on its activities and accomplishments to Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper in late December or early January.

It's important to be as open and transparent as possible with everyone, McMahon emphasized.

A person puts out a fire.
Flames Out
Stan Karwoski, a senior fire test technician at the Naval Research Laboratory, tests the effectiveness of aqueous film-forming foam by spraying it on a gasoline fire in a 28- square foot container. The fire is nearly extinguished in a matter of seconds. The test took place at the laboratory in Chesapeake Beach, Md., Oct. 25, 2019.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191025-D-UB488-011

McMahon concluded by noting that PFAS has affected him and his family, as he served over 34 years in the Air Force and was stationed at places where PFAS was present. "The issue is personal," he said.