U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pressing the Senate and House Armed Services Committees to maintain provisions that manage the military’s use of dangerous chemicals found in some types of firefighting foam during their conference negotiations of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
Sen. Gillibrand joined with 20 other senators to sign a letter, authored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sent to the two committees’ leadership Oct. 7. The letter details how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have become a major contaminant in drinking water sources for more than 650 American military bases across the world.
The compounds are found most frequently in aqueous firefighting foam, which is a substance used by military and civilian airports and airfields to suppress fires from jet fuel spills.
Fort Drum is one of the military bases where high levels of toxic PFAS were found in the water table. In September of last year, the Environmental Working Group obtained Army reports indicating that 90 Army bases across the nation had concerning levels of the chemicals in their water table.
At the time, Julie Halpin, a Fort Drum public affairs official, told WWNY-TV, also known as 7 News, that the high levels came from groundwater testing wells around the post, and the base’s levels are well below the federal government’s 70 nanogram-per-liter threshold.
“The federal threshold for PFOA/PFOS is 70 ng/L in drinking water,” Ms. Halpin said in an email to 7 News last year. “The New York state proposed limit for drinking water is 10 ng/L. We are at 2 ng/L.”
The aqueous firefighting foam is primarily water-based and extinguishes fires by coating the fuel and cutting oxygen off from the fire. According to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the foam also forms a film that covers the surface of the fuel spill, preventing evaporation or reignition.
Initial analyses have linked PFAS materials with birth defects, immune system dysfunction and various forms of cancer, the senators’ letter said.
In 2016, the U.S. Air Force paid $4.3 million for a water treatment system to protect residents downstream of the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado from the chemicals, and as of this year, numerous state government agencies have moved to dispose of nearly a million gallons of firefighting foam by incineration or landfilling.
The Senate- and House-passed versions of the NDAA both include provisions that would ensure funding for any programs related to PFAS harm mitigation or studies into its effects. Other provisions included in either bill direct funding to medical services for soldiers who may have been exposed to the chemicals.
The different versions of the bill for the House and Senate are the result of amendments and committee adjustments made as the bills made their way through the legislative process. The bill has passed both houses of Congress, and now a selection of House and Senate members are working together to consolidate the two versions of the legislation into one unified bill, which must then pass each house again unamended.
“Our servicemembers risk their lives to keep us safe, and Congress has a duty to protect their health and provide the resources needed,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “These important provisions will help us better understand the scope and consequences of toxic PFAS exposure, preserve the health of our servicemembers, and find safe alternatives.
“Our men and women in uniform should be able to trust that their water, environment, and equipment is not destroying their health,” she added. “I was proud to push for these provisions in the bipartisan Senate-passed NDAA and I insist House and Senate leadership ensure they are included in the final bill to combat the urgent issue of PFAS contamination.”