Pentagon Falls Behind on Plan to Replace ‘Forever Chemicals’ at Military Bases

Army soldiers walk as they prepare equipment and load an aircraft at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Jan. 4, 2020. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/U.S. Army via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Research into alternatives for the toxic chemicals found in military firefighting foam is underway but no viable option has yet been found and the pandemic has delayed progress, a Defense Department official told House lawmakers Tuesday.

Over $95 million is sunk into research and development for remediating contamination by PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, at hundreds of military bases and other defense operations throughout the U.S.

PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.  They are used in everything from nonstick bakeware to furniture to clothing, and for years have been widely used in a type of firefighting foam known as AFFF, or aqueous film forming foam, used by the military.

Exposure to the toxic chemicals has been shown to cause cancer and other health defects. It is a difficult pollutant to eliminate once it’s in the soil, ground and drinking water.

Several states have long banned firefighters from using the toxic foam and the Pentagon has pushed to totally end its use in military and other federal agency operations no later than October 2024.

On Tuesday, Herb Nelson, director of the Defense Department’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, told members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness that the Pentagon is currently reviewing at least six projects seeking an alternative firefighting product to replace the one containing PFAS.

It’s still too early to say whether those compounds will work, Nelson said, and like many other things around the globe the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed progress, though not to a total standstill.

“We’re making good progress in research programs of identifying substances that meet the extinguishing requirement,” Nelson said.

PFAS-free foams being tested now are expected to meet what is known as a reignition standard – meaning once a fire is extinguished, it stays extinguished.

The military’s requirement for extinguishment time is 30 seconds or less for a 28-square-foot gasoline fire.

“Many PFAS-free foams can do it in 40 to 45 seconds. We’re making progress but we’re not there yet,” Nelson said, noting that researchers are about six months behind where they ought to be.

Nelson said he would provide the committee with a report on the Defense Department’s findings on the alternative chemicals and his department would work to determine if there were other uses for them.

Another concern for both Democrats and Republicans on the committee Tuesday was the matter of PFAS disposal. Incineration is the primary method to remove PFAS and Nelson said there aren’t any alternatives yet available.

Incineration is believed to be extremely toxic. A study published last December in the scientific journal Chemosphere also found that burning PFAS may not actually contain or destroy the substance. Instead, the researchers found, it merely returns the chemical or its byproducts back into the atmosphere, soil and water.

A push by the Environmental Protection Agency in August to burn PFAS substances in Rahway, New Jersey, for a study were successfully beat back after outcry by environmentalist groups, but a gap in understanding of how to eliminate PFAS remains.

The House-passed National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 places a ban on the incineration of PFAS until the EPA provides safe guidance, which is expected by the end of this year.

Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, also testified Tuesday. She told lawmakers that while concerns over PFAS disposal are mounting, in her mind there is no question that Defense Department facilities cannot stockpile the waste.

“We don’t have the space on military installations to stockpile that. It would require us to stop certain activities,” Sullivan said.

When she testified at another hearing before Congress in March, Sullivan said total PFAS remediation for the U.S. could take at least 30 years.

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