By Jerry Ensminger
When Congress returns to Washington, D.C., in September, our senators will have a chance to ensure that the Department of Defense takes responsibility for per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances that have contaminated our drinking water supplies.
For decades the Department of Defense has failed to clean up legacy PFAS pollution caused by the DOD’s use of fluorinated firefighting foam. DOD helped create fluorinated foam in the late 1960s and has known about its toxic effects since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the DOD conducted its own studies, which linked PFAS to health concerns. In 2000, DOD officials were warned by EPA scientists that PFAS caused serious health effects at very low doses.
Yet DOD officials continued to use these foams and are now resisting demands to clean up their legacy pollution. In particular, the DOD has cited the absence of a “hazardous substance” designation by the Environmental Protection Agency as one reason for delay.
Military families like mine deserve better. Designating PFAS as a hazardous substance under the federal Superfund law will kick-start the PFAS cleanup process at dozens of military installations where high levels of PFAS have been detected. So far, PFAS pollution has been confirmed at more than 200 military installations, but DOD officials fear twice as many facilities could be contaminated.
The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020, the DOD’s annual funding bill, would designate PFAS a hazardous substance. The Senate version would not. By early October, House and Senate leaders must decide whether to make PFAs cleanup a priority – or whether to tell military families and other people living near contaminated sites that they must wait another year.
PFAS chemicals have been linked to serious health concerns, including cancer, harm to the reproductive system, and harm to the immune system. They do not break down in the environment; they build up in our blood and organs. Yet the Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations failed to act. And no one expects Trump’s EPA to do the right thing, because designation of PFAS as “hazardous substances” will not only force the DOD to act but will also ensure that polluters like DuPont and 3M pay their fair share of cleanup costs.
Clearly, it’s up to Congress to take the reins. When the DOD refused to take care of families poisoned by toxic water pollution at Camp LeJeune, Sen. Richard Burr helped pass the Janey Ensminger Act to ensure that military families like mine would receive proper health care. When President Trump nominated a “scientist” to oversee chemical reviews who had – on behalf of DuPont and other polluters – sought to weaken safety standards for decades, Sen. Burr joined with Sen. Thom Tillis to block his nomination.
Now we need Sens. Burr and Tillis to ensure that the DOD cleans up legacy PFAS contamination. Both senators were original co-sponsors of S. 638, the PFAS Action Act, which designates PFAS as hazardous substances. So we know where they stand. The only question is whether they will stand up to other senators who want to put polluters ahead of our public health.
Retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger was stationed for many years at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. He lost his daughter Janey, in 1985, at the age of nine from leukemia after she was exposed to toxic chemicals while living on base.