May 16, 2023

Analysis: PFAS cleanup funding fails to meet needs

Cannon AFB courtesy photo: VIRIN: 101010-F-YG475-003.JPG

PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016.

A new analysis released Monday by the Environmental Working Group shows that the U.S. Department of Defense’s budget for cleaning up sites like Cannon Air Force Base where activities led to PFAS contamination of groundwater is falling behind.

There are four Department of Defense sites in New Mexico with known PFAS contamination and four others with suspected contamination.

PFAS chemicals, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to various health conditions including increased risks of certain cancers, increased risk of pre-eclampsia for pregnant women, changes in liver enzymes, decreased responses to vaccines and increased cholesterol levels.

PFAS are often referred to as forever chemicals because they break down very slowly and can persist for thousands of years in the environment.

According to the analysis, the estimated cost to clean up the Department of Defense sites across the nation where PFAS contamination has occurred increased by $3.7 billion from 2016 to 2021. The most recent estimate provided by the Pentagon was in 2021 when the department estimated it would cost $31 billion.

During that same time period, the budget for cleaning up the sites increased by $400 million.

The increase in costs is largely because more contamination has been found.

“We call the escalating backlog a cleanup time bomb because, based on our trajectories, DOD’s cleanup challenge will become increasingly difficult if not impossible to overcome without substantial increases in funding,” Jared Hayes, a senior policy analyst at EWG, said during a Monday morning press conference.

According to EWG, some of the sites that have PFAS contamination may not be cleaned up for more than half a century.

Hayes said that as the DOD continues to investigate PFAS contamination at bases, the backlog of cleanup projects will grow.

“We still don’t know how many bases are going to need to be cleaned up,” Hayes said.

He said EWG estimates the cleanup will cost tens of billions of dollars on top of the $31 billion estimate that the Department of Defense issued in 2021 for projects that are already “within the backlog.”

John Reeder, the vice president of federal affairs for EWG, said the costs are going up because the DOD waited too long to investigate the PFAS contamination despite knowing about it for decades. He said the department just began to characterize and investigate the sites in recent years.

Those military bases where contamination has occurred continue to impact surrounding communities as well as service members stationed at the bases.

In New Mexico, the sites with confirmed PFAS contamination included Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo and White Sands Missile Range. The contamination at those sites came from firefighting foam used in training exercises.

Other communities where military installations may have led to PFAS contamination include Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Roswell and Fort Wingate near Gallup.

Hayes said that the Department of Defense is currently in the early stages of cleanup at sites, which primarily involves testing and determining the scope of the contamination. He said no site that EWG is aware of has been fully cleaned up.

The EWG has identified more than 700 sites with known or suspected PFAS contamination.

The contamination has led to conflict between New Mexico and the Department of Defense, including court cases in which the state has tried to force the clean up of PFAS contamination and the Department of Defense has fought back against such demands.