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Environment & Energy Report

`Forever Chemicals’ Cleanup Cost to Air Force Nears $500 Million

March 3, 2020, 6:33 PM

The Air Force says it’s spent almost $500 million on cleaning up a family of toxic “forever chemicals” that have polluted bases across the country. Senators pointed to mixed results in some communities.

The cost for clearing chemicals such as perfluorinated carboxylic acid, or PFAS, used in firefighting foam was cited by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett as senators peppered her with questions during an Armed Services Committee hearing. Efforts to develop an alternative foam that is equally effective have failed so far, Barrett said.

“We have spent almost a half billion dollars in clean up to date and we’ll continue,” Barrett said. “I don’t know what that exact number for this year is but we will continue that cleanup effort and work with the communities for cleanup.”

Details of the public health problem are trickling out as top defense officials give budget testimony. The Pentagon also is preparing to report to Congress this month on work by its PFAS task force, formed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper to manage potential pollution at 401 facilities with a cost estimated earlier at $2 billion.

Firefighting foam used by the military has historically included PFAS chemicals.
Photographer: U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Leon Cook

The Navy said last week it has a $60 million budget for PFAS cleanup in fiscal 2020 and 2021. It is also taking the lead on finding foam alternatives as the military faces a 2024 deadline to phase out all use of the firefighting materials that contain the chemical.

3M Co. and DuPont were the original companies developing and producing PFAS, dating to the 1940s. The chemicals have been used by hundreds of companies such as Wolverine World Wide Inc. and W. L. Gore & Associates Inc. to make thousands of products, including semiconductors, sticky notes, and shoes. The original PFAS manufacturers, Chemours Co., and some companies using the chemicals are the subject of several lawsuits.

Taking Precautions

The Air Force no longer trains with the foam and is taking precautions to contain it when used, Barrett said.

“The Navy is working on doing experiments with other foam additives,” she said. “They have not yet it seems come upon a solution that meets the requirements to extinguish intense fires in contained areas.”

Both services need the ability to stop fires quickly around aircraft and aboard ships, but foam spills have threatened ground water, military personnel, and residents who live around current and former bases.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) blasted the Air Force for its handling of water pollution in the town of Clovis by Cannon Air Force Base in the east of the state. The pollution has devastated the local dairy industry and triggered deep concerns about safety, according to local media reports.

“In the case of Clovis, N.M., I’m sort of beyond frustrated by the utter lack of communication and any level of coordination at this point between Air Force leadership and local government elected officials for the city of Clovis,” Heinrich told Barrett during the hearing.

With assistance from Roxana Tiron

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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