In the battle to regulate PFAS, states take the lead as military, industries play defense
July 7, 2021
Recently, the U.S. Air Force announced a $16.6 million contract to AECOM/Brice for a pilot project at Cannon Air Force Base. The plan is to install a water treatment system at the southeastern corner of the base to “pump and treat” water for PFOS and PFOA, two types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have contaminated groundwater.
According to Christipher Gierke, remedial project manager with the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center, if all goes according to plan, construction will begin early next year and the project will be online in 2023.
Water treated on the base will be reinjected into the aquifer, he said. As for what happens to the toxic substances themselves, that’s not clear at this point.
“As far as the disposal of used filtration equipment, that will depend on where we're at in the regulatory process down the road because things are changing,” Gierke said. “So as new guidelines come out, that will affect how we handle that waste that's generated at that time.” He added that the Air Force will “strictly follow” whatever regulations are at that time.
The current lack of federal regulations, even for PFAS in drinking water, is a major sticking point between the military and states like New Mexico, which are trying to compel the military to clean up the toxic substances.
In a separate conversation, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney spoke about the state’s efforts to understand the extent of the groundwater contamination at places like Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases and hold the military responsible for its cleanup.
“The pilot project that I understand Cannon is undertaking is a system that will prevent PFAS-contaminated groundwater from migrating off base,” said Kenney, whose office learned of the Air Force’s plans only after they had been publicly announced. “In terms of a larger delineation and cleanup of the area, the Air Force hasn't been in contact with us to talk about that.”
New Mexico's environmental regulators learned from the Air Force in 2018 that it had contaminated local waters with PFAS from firefighting foams used at Cannon and Holloman. Since that time, the U.S. Department of Defense has sued New Mexico for trying to mandate that the military clean up the pollution under its state permits. That lawsuit is ongoing—and in June, the Biden administration's DOD called New Mexico's attempts to compel cleanup under one of the military's permits "arbitrary and capricious."
Meanwhile, Kenney is also asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for help, and in particular, to set a federal pollution standard for the toxic substances. As Kenney said, “New Mexicans should not have to fight to clean up contaminated groundwater.”
PFAS around the U.S.
Nationally, states and communities continue to find PFAS in local waters, including in Massachusetts. According to a story from Christian M. Wade of the North Andover Eagle-Tribune, the U.S. Geological Survey has found PFAS in each of the 27 major rivers and tributary brooks tested in the state. Wade writes:
Dr. Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute, said because there are no treatments or medically approved ways to remove PFAS contamination from people’s bodies, the focus has to be on reducing exposure.
"The legacy PFAS contaminants stay in our bodies for years, unfortunately," she told [regulators]. "There's really no way to remove it from your body."
And at WBUR, Chris Van Buskirk reports that state officials are being urged to test people who have been exposed to PFAS:
Offering blood testing for people in areas exposed to PFAS, additional funds for statewide research, education, and surveillance, and passing laws restricting the use of certain firefighting foam and food packaging were all part of a set of recommendations a top academic expert offered this week to a state task force investigating the impact of the chemicals in Massachusetts.
The advice, offered by Northeastern University Social Science Director Environmental Health Research Institute Director Dr. Phil Brown, comes as state legislators and stakeholders take a deep dive into the effect of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, on public health and the environment.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has set aside $1.6 million to study the links between PFAS exposure and cancer, after contamination shut down drinking water wells in the state. In California, where 61 groundwater wells were closed due to PFAS contamination, Orange County is starting its first water treatment plant. And Rolling Stone is among the outlets to report on the video of Keith McCoy, senior director of federal relations for ExxonMobil, describing the company’s efforts to push back against regulation of PFAS. ExxonMobil, like many oil companies, is advocating for expanded plastics manufacturing as demand for fossil fuels in transportation and the power sector declines.
According to the story: “McCoy describes the company’s efforts to lobby against PFAS regulation ‘under the guise’ of industry front groups — an effort he boasts has succeeded in keeping PFAS from becoming known as ‘the Exxon Mobil chemical.’”