Updated January 28, 2022 - 11:25 am
WASHINGTON — Cleanup of cancer-causing contaminants found at hundreds of military installations — including those in Nevada — has prompted frustrated senators to urge the Pentagon to improve communication with local communities to develop long-term plans to reduce health risks.
High levels of contamination in Nevada were found at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs and particularly at Nellis Air Force Base, which landed on a Superfund clean-up list under the Environmental Protection Agency. The groundwater contamination is at unsafe levels and could spread.
“This is an area of concern that we need to address,” said Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Rosen joined senators from New Hampshire, Michigan and Delaware in asking Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a Jan. 20 letter to provide community leaders and groups more information and input in ongoing testing and removal of chemicals at local bases.
The Air Force, Navy and Army are currently analyzing the contamination of perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, that are found in foam used to extinguish petroleum-based fires. The chemical foam has been used at defense installations for years.
Testing, analysis and remediation are underway at Nellis and Creech, as well as at Hawthorne Army Depot and Fallon Naval Air Station, according to a Defense Department report.
In Las Vegas, local leaders are most concerned with contamination of groundwater at Nellis, because of the high level of chemicals present, and the potential for the toxins to spread in the Las Vegas Valley.
“According to the Air Force, no PFAS has been found in drinking water so far, but they did find PFAS contamination in groundwater at levels far above what is considered healthy,” Rosen said.
Similar chemicals also are found at Creech, although the contamination of groundwater appears to be less concentrated.
In addition to groundwater contamination, Rosen said exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals poses a continued threat to military personnel and to civilians.
Last year, Rosen sponsored bicameral, bipartisan legislation to require the Department of Defense to publicly disclose testing results for contamination at installations nationwide. The language was included in the defense bill for fiscal year 2022, which began Oct. 1.
Rosen also joined Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Gary Peters of Michigan and Chris Coons of Delaware in the Jan. 20 letter to Secretary Austin calling for more communication with local communities on testing and results.
A Pentagon spokesman said the letter was received, but said it will take some time before a response to the lawmakers can be provided.
Hundreds of sites
Department of Defense documents have identified nearly 700 current and former military installations, as well as National Guard facilities, with contamination that is due mainly to the fire-fighting foam.
The Biden administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense, announced last year expanded testing capabilities, as well as plans to disseminate information to provide transparency on cleanup strategies, according to the White House.
More than $150 million was made available for Defense Department research on the contaminants in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden last year.
Still, lawmakers want an accelerated timetable for removing the “forever chemicals,” labeled as such because they do not break down environmentally and will continually pose health risks.
An October 2021 report by the Pentagon showed that analysis and cleanup were taking place at Nellis, Creech, Hawthorne and Fallon as well as National Guard installations in Las Vegas and Reno.
So far, drinking water at Nevada installations has not been compromised.
Drinking water at Nellis comes mainly from Lake Mead. And Air Force officials have updated their testing and sampling to monitor contamination of groundwater on the base.
Public meetings about the ongoing procedures by the Air Force have taken place in North Las Vegas. Testing and sampling also are ongoing at Creech.
Aggressive actions are being taken to identify contamination. At Nellis, that means monitoring groundwater samples a half-mile down from the base, said Mark Kinkade, a spokesman for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center at Joint Base San Antonio.
Kinkade said the Air Force is working with the community, Nevada regulators and federal agencies to identify the problem and develop long-term solutions at Creech and Nellis.
“We live in the communities we serve, and we share community concerns about the possible impacts our firefighting operations may have on human drinking water sources,” Kinkade said.
$1.1 billion problem
The Air Force, as well as other service branches, have developed plans to detect, monitor and clean up toxic contamination at installations nationwide. The Department of Defense has spent more than $1.1 billion as of fiscal year 2021 on fixing the problem.
In addition to the military, the chemicals have been used in civilian aviation and in commercial operations for years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which identified the risk to human health in 2012 and set standards and guidelines for reducing the potential for exposure.
Those most at risk have been firefighters and emergency crews.
The chemicals in the fire-fighting foam are classified as carcinogens by the National Cancer Institute.
A critical report by the Office of the Inspector General for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2021 said that the Department of Defense was aware of exposure to the chemicals to service personnel as early as 2011, but waited until 2016 to act. As a result, people and the environment were exposed to “preventable risks” due to the military’s delay, according to the inspector general’s report.
During a Dec. 9, 2021 hearing held by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Environmental and Energy Resilience, explained the delay.
Kidd said the military was following the lead of industry and regulatory agencies in what was “accepted practice at the time.”
Solution will take decades
Rosen, also a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, grilled Kidd specifically about the timetable for ongoing cleanup at Nevada installations, particularly at Nellis.
In his response, Kidd told the senator the process would “take years to define the problem and decades to complete it.”
The Pentagon’s response to the risk in Nevada has prompted Rosen to seek expedited action by the Department of Defense, and more input from community groups on removal or containment of contaminated groundwater and soils.
Peters, chairman of the Homeland Security panel, said the Pentagon has not been proactive and not quick to notify those who have been exposed to the cancer-causing toxins.
Meanwhile, Nevada is one of roughly 30 states, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, that have established testing standards for contamination that the military must meet in testing, containment and removal.
One state, New Jersey, has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense over contamination of drinking water.
The Department of Defense estimates are that it will cost taxpayers in excess of $2.1 billion to complete cleanup, but the Government Accounting Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, said in a June 2021 report that that estimate is likely to increase significantly.
Although the focus of the contamination of the chemicals has focused on the Department of Defense, commercial aviation, industrial plants and commercial sites that have used the fire-suppressing foam are also under scrutiny by the Biden administration.
And it has been noted that the toxic chemicals are found in household products, such as non-stick cookware, food packaging and clothes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, most people in the United States have some level of the chemicals in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
As a result, class-action lawsuits have been filed against the chemical manufacturers, including DuPont and 3M.
The Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Agriculture Department, National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency have programs to reduce the chemicals in food sources, packaging and other products.
About $10 billion is available in grants to states and underserved communities to identify and address contamination of the compounds. The funding was included in a section of the infrastructure bill to improve supplies and provide clean drinking water to every community, according to the White House.