Reform

DOD Moving Forward With Task Force to Address PFAS

Aug. 9, 2019 | BY Miranda Paley

The Defense Department kicked off its first PFAS Task Force meeting today to address chemicals that have affected military installations and surrounding communities.

"Our most important resource is our people," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Bob McMahon said. "We have a responsibility to take care of our people, their families and the communities where we serve."

Man at table speaks
PFAS Task Force
Robert H. McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, presides over the first meeting of the PFAS task force in Washington, Aug. 9, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew L. Carroll, DOD
VIRIN: 190809-D-UO644-0033
A group of people sitting at a desk.
McMahon Meeting
The Honorable Robert H. McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, presides over the first meeting of the PFAS task force in Washington, Aug. 9, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew L. Carroll, DOD
VIRIN: 190809-D-UO644-0012

On July 23, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper announced the task force to address PFAS — per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. DOD has identified 401 active and former — base realignment and closure — installations with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid. PFOS and PFOA are two chemicals of the larger class known as PFAS.

PFAS are ubiquitous, found in everyday items such as nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers, water-resistant clothing, shampoo, dental floss, nail polish and eye makeup. In defense applications, the chemicals have been found in firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. The foam is used by DOD and other firefighting organizations to rapidly extinguish fuel fires and protect against catastrophic loss of life and property.

Firefighter prepares to extinguish blaze
Fire Extinguisher
A firefighter with the Montana Army National Guard’s 1050th Firefighting Tactical Group checks with the rest of the firefighting crew to make sure the hose is ready before heading into a simulator designed for aircraft rescue and firefighting training at Volk Field Air National Guard Base, Wis., as a part of their annual training at exercise Northern Lightning, May 8, 2019.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Britney Hiat
VIRIN: 190508-Z-YV764-035

In May 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisories under the Safe Drinking Water Act, recommending a 70 parts per trillion level of PFOS and/or PFOA in drinking water.

"DOD's first priority is to address drinking water with PFOS and PFOA from DOD activities," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment Maureen Sullivan said.

In several congressional hearings, Sullivan explained that DOD tested all of the 524 water systems worldwide for which the department is the water purveyor and has worked with water suppliers to test systems where it buys water. The department identified 24 DOD drinking water systems and 12 other systems containing PFOS and PFOA levels above the health advisory recommendation.

Firefighters fight blaze
Simulated Fire
Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the destroyer USS Gridley practice firefighting skills and techniques by battling a simulated fire at the Bremerton International Emergency Services Training Center in Bremerton, Wash., May 15, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Wyatt L. Anthony
VIRIN: 190515-N-VH385-1173

To protect surrounding communities, the military departments use data from investigating known and suspected releases of firefighting foam to identify affected public water systems and private wells. 

While the specific actions taken vary according to the unique circumstances at each location, the military departments have taken swift action to address drinking water affected from DOD activities. They have provided alternative or treated water through activities such as:

  • Bottled water 
  • Filters 
  • Connections to wells 
  • Connections to a municipal system 
  • Adding treatment systems 

DOD follows the federal cleanup law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, to prioritize, study and appropriately address sites.

To prevent future releases to the environment, DOD stopped land-based use of AFFF in training, testing and maintenance through a departmentwide policy issued in January 2016.  When DOD must use AFFF in emergencies to save lives, releases are treated as a spill. Affected soil is contained and removed, ensuring no further PFAS is added to the groundwater. 

Looking ahead, the department is investing heavily in researching fluorine-free alternatives, Sullivan has testified to Congress. Other defense research includes innovations to speed up cleanup and better tools to understand how these chemicals move and transform in the environment.

Firefighters fight helicopter blaze
Fort Hunter Fire
The Fort Hunter Liggett (Calif.) Fire Department trains for airport firefighter certification with Army firefighters from the Army Reserve 163rd Ordnance Company out of Tustin, Calif., May 9, 2019.
Photo By: Cynthia McIntyre, Army
VIRIN: 190509-O-AP697-048

Many federal agencies are also working to understand the science behind potential health effects from exposure to PFAS. DOD is supporting the efforts of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct an exposure assessment in communities surrounding eight military installations and a nationwide health study. DOD has committed $40 million as directed by Congress. 

"As the department addresses this national issue, we strive to work in collaboration with regulatory agencies and communities to ensure our resources are applied effectively to protect human health across the country as part of a national effort led by EPA," Sullivan said. 

"DOD has taken the lead in protecting the health of persons on and near DOD installations by fully investigating releases and determining the appropriate cleanup actions based on risk," she said. "This is a national problem involving a wide array of industries and commercial applications, as well as many federal and state agencies. Therefore, it needs a nationwide solution."

Helpful Links

Task Force

Congressional Testimony

Aqueous Film-Forming Foam 

Military Departments & PFOS/PFOA

Defense Environmental Research Programs

Defense Environmental Restoration Programs

Other Agencies