Photo courtesy of Airman 1st Class Caitlin Russell

Air Force’s firefighting foam linked to contaminated water

January 07, 2019 - 7:47 am
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The Air Force is wrestling with the toxic legacy of a firefighting foam it used for decades in training exercises that residents on and near bases across the country fear has contaminated their drinking water.

While the latest episode involves three bases in Georgia, the Pentagon has noted that groundwater near more than 100 U.S. military bases has been found to contain potentially harmful levels of chemicals tied to cancers and childhood development issues.

In Georgia, Air Force officials have pushed back against a report last week in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said drinking water could be unsafe for thousands of residents around Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County, Robins Air Force Base in Houston County and Moody Air Force Base in Lowndes County.

Environmentalists and residents are questioning the Air Force’s findings, saying its review was too limited and failed to test water off the military bases.

It is the water away from the installations, according to local media, that has been tainted by firefighting foam leaking from storage tanks and finding its way into creeks and wetlands used by residences for fishing, swimming and boating.

“No contaminant obeys property lines,” Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The foam has been widely used to put out fires when planes crash and in training exercises simulating crashes. Its success relies upon a manufactured chemical, perfluorinated compounds or PFAS, that can be manipulated to make items heat- or water-resistant.

PFAS are used in scores of everyday household items, such as take-out food wrappers. At military bases they are heavily concentrated in the foam used to extinguish jet fuel fires. PFAS also have been linked to cancers and developmental delays for fetuses and infants.

Pentagon officials are working to address the issue; in March, they provided Capitol Hill lawmakers with a report listing the full scope of the problem.

The 61-page report, submitted to the House Armed Services Committee, included details about 25 Army bases, 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites that tested at higher than acceptable levels for PFAS in groundwater sources or drinking water.

At the time, Maureen Sullivan, the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, said safety measures already had been taken at affected bases, including installing filters and providing bottled water to assure all water conformed to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines.

Defense Department officials also are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study long-term effects of exposure to PFAS.

An additional issue is that the Defense Department does not supervise all local drinking water sources near its bases. Tainted water could occur from contracted vendors or local utilities that fail to assure their water meets federal standards.

“It’s up to the owner of that system to make a decision on what they’re going to do,” Ms. Sullivan said last year. “So we’re on a fine line of trying to provide drinking water to our folks when we’re buying it from somebody else.”

In Georgia, environmentalists and residents are demanding more testing. They point to Moody Air Force Base, in south Georgia, which began life as a flight training facility during World War II and was one of the three installations recently revealed to have contaminated groundwater.

Tests of base water showed no reportable contamination, and officials emphasized that its wells tapped water from a protected aquifer more than 400 feet deep. Local residents countered that the wells they use do not go nearly as deep.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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