Peters presses Defense officials over 'very, very slow' PFAS response

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — Members of a Senate committee led by Michigan U.S. Sen. Gary Peters pressed Defense Department officials Thursday for the agency's failure to act quickly on synthetic substances known as "forever chemicals" at military bases. 

The hearing follows the release earlier this year of a report by the Department of Defense's inspector general indicating that agency waited five years to warn military members of contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals.

"I've seen firsthand how PFAS contamination can cause serious harm to our communities," Peters said in his opening remarks Thursday. The Bloomfield Township Democrat listed sites of the toxic chemicals around the state, including the former Wurtsmith Air Force base in Oscoda, the Selfridge Air National Guard base in Harrison Township, the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette and Alpena Regional Airport.

U.S. Senator Gary Peters

"Residents in each of these affected communities are asking us to help protect their health their loved ones and their water," Peters said. 

The Department of Defense had information showing that PFAS presented a health and environmental risk in 2011, but didn't begin intervening until 2016, according to the report. The delay violated the department's policies for emerging contaminants, the inspector general found. 

The agency should also have taken an "enterprise-wide approach" to address the chemicals by looking into multiple types and sources of PFAS contamination, the report said. Because department officials did not, "people and the environment may continue to be exposed to preventable risks from other PFAS‑containing materials."

Peters said the Defense Department has been "reluctant to accept responsibility" for its role in the crisis, has been slow to take action to limit further exposure, and doesn't have a comprehensive plan to identify contamination and clean it up. 

The department has taken "some important steps" to address the contamination, such as beginning to identify those who have been exposed and blood testing firefighters, but pushed for the agency to accelerate remediation he said has been "very, very slow," he added.

PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals" for their persistence in the environment, has long been used to make furniture, paper packaging for food and cookware that is resistant to water, grease or stains. The chemicals have been found on several Air Force bases in Michigan due to their presence in firefighting foam. 

The chemicals are linked to health problems including certain cancers and damage to liver and immunity functions, developmental impacts on fetuses, as well as cognitive and behavioral effects in exposed children. 

Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network and owner of a home on Van Etten Lake in Oscoda, told the committee that the Air Force has no plan to clean up PFAS contamination at Wurtsmith and that it estimates it will be up to five more years before a plan is in place. 

In the meantime, he said, the community has had five public health warnings for unsafe drinking water, fish, game, wildlife and shoreline foam. 

"It saddens me deeply to report that DoD is actively harming the people and communities that it is supposed to protect," he said. 

Michigan has some of the most stringent rules in the nation limiting chemical contaminants in drinking water supplies, with rules that took effect last year governing the presence of seven PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

Peters asked why the Department of Defense has resisted efforts by the state of Michigan to get the federal government to adopt similar groundwater criteria under provisions passed through the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The provision, added to the law by Peters and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, allows a governor to request a new cooperative agreement for remediation at military sites, requiring the Pentagon to comply with state laws if they are stricter.

Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy resilience with the Department of Defense, responded there are "some legal ambiguities about what is the proper course of action to follow."

Sean O'Donnell, inspector general and acting inspector general with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense, said recent reviews of EPA processes has shown that the agency "lacks the tools and resources necessary to address the safety of PFAS and other chemicals."

"EPA also struggles with effectively communicating risk to the public and in particular to communities at risk," O'Donnell said. "We recently reported that the EPA's communication related to PFAS and other emerging chemicals at Superfund sites had been significantly inconsistent and delayed."

Michael Roark, deputy inspector general for evaluations with the Department of Defense, said the watchdog has laid out recommendations for the agency to follow. That includes revising policy to accelerate response time requirements, expand contaminant responses to PFAS from other sources besides firefighting foam, starting a program to track PFAS in firefighters' blood across the agency and more. 

Defense Department officials said the agency is complying with the recommendations, but officials were reluctant to say the agency was guilty of wrongdoing. Agency officials who spoke before the committee said it is not clear what levels of PFAS contamination pose a health threat, and said that the agency is funding research to accelerate this understanding and the cleanup that follows.

"The lack of this clear set of measurable and objective health and environmental standards complicates our ability to take proactive actions," Kidd said.  

"Based on what we know today, it will take years to define the scope of our cleanup and decades before it is complete."

The department is also spending at least $1.5 billion in existing cleanup activities at military installations, Kidd said, which they "believe is the largest cleanup effort in the country."

Peters pressed Kidd to describe when the Department of Defense learned about the health hazards posed by PFAS. Kidd responded they learned of it "basically at the same pace as the rest of America" and said it wasn't until 2016 they had an advisory from the EPA that allowed them to "take objective, measurable actions."

He told Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, the agency will now hold annual meetings that will allow them to identify emerging contaminants with the help of EPA, which should prevent the five-year delay from happening again. 

However, O'Donnell noted that "the states are far ahead of the EPA when it comes to addressing chemical safety and risk from those chemicals."

Earlier this week, Michigan officials called upon the federal government to contribute more federal support and research to help states better determine how to protect groundwater and the food supply from PFAS. The state has identified 194 contaminated sites around the state in the last four years.

Twitter: @rbeggin

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.