Proposed Legislation Calls for Military Bases to Report PFAS Water Contamination

Environmental groups praise the new provisions focused on PFAS water contamination, which must still be approved by the full House and Senate and signed into law by President Biden.

A bill has been introduced to approve defense spending for fiscal year 2024, which will include a number of requirements regarding the military’s use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” including new reporting requirements on sites contaminated with the toxic chemicals.

The U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee approved the markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2024 (H.R. 2670) last week, which includes multiple provisions detailing how the military should deal with PFAS and potential contamination.

Military Firefighter Foam PFAS Risks

Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS were first introduced into the manufacturing industry in the 1940’s, because of their ability to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. However, the chemicals are known to persist in the environment and human body for decades, posing a variety of serious side effects, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.

While the chemicals have been widely used in a number of consumer products, most of the military base water contamination problems stem from high levels of the chemicals in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which has been used by firefighters during training and responses exercises, which usually occur on military bases.

As a result of heath risks associate with exposure, PFAS water contamination lawsuits are being filed by individuals living in many areas of the U.S., claiming they developed ulcerative colitis or cancer from high volumes of PFAS chemicals being dumped into the ground water surrounding chemical manufacturing plants and around military bases, airports and other training facilities.

In recent years, hundreds of firefighting foam lawsuits have also been filed by former civilian and military firefighters diagnosed with various forms of cancer after direct exposure to the chemicals, and a number of municipal water systems are also pursuing claims against the chemical manufacturers over clean-up costs.

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The House version of the NDAA calls for the Department of Defense to be more proactive on avoiding the use of products containing PFAS and on reporting PFAS water contamination risks.

The bill contains new measures that will require the defense department to submit a report on locations with known PFAS drinking water contamination, and report on its remediation efforts at those facilities.

The provisions also include preventing the military from buying household items that contain PFAS and requiring it to report on its efforts to identify items that use PFAS and phase them out if non-essential. In addition, it calls for periodic health exams for service members which includes blood tests and PFAS exposure assessments.

The proposed legislation must now be approved by the full House of Representatives, and await passage of a similar bill in the Senate, after which the two bills will be reconciled, and, if passed, will then need to be signed into law by President Joe Biden.

According to the executive summary of the legislation, the 2024 senate version of the bill “(d)irects a report on the proposed schedule and cost estimate for the completion of remediation activities associated with PFAS, and encourages the use of emergent, best available, and most effective PFAS treatment options.”

Environmental Group Praises Defense Act PFAS Provisions

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental activist group that has pushed for the reduction of the use of PFAS chemicals, praised the provisions in the House bill.

“Hundreds of communities across the country are still grappling with the effects of 50 years of DOD PFAS pollution,” Scott Faber, EWG Senior Vice President for government affairs, said in a press release. “This legislation will get us closer to bringing long-awaited relief to those communities.”

According to an EWG analysis, in 2021 the Department of Defense estimated that the total funding needed to clean up active, inactive and former defense sites of PFAS contamination is about $31 billion. That’s up $3.7 billion from estimates it made from 2016 to 2020.

However, for fiscal year 2023, EWG indicates the Pentagon only requested $1.4 billion for the cleanup efforts. Congress instead budgeted $2.2 billion. In its fiscal year 2024 budget request, the Pentagon has asked for only $1.5 billion; essentially asking Congress to cut its funding from the previous year.

Military Base PFAS Use Concerns

EWG estimates that investigating and cleaning up firefighter foam PFAS water contamination must be done at 700 known and suspected military contamination sites, which could cost tens of billions of dollars in addition to the current $31 billion estimate.

In December, EWG issued a report warning DOD was undercounting service members impacted by PFAS water contamination on military bases.

In April 2022, the DoD conducted an assessment of PFAS contamination on U.S. military bases, indicating 24 installations, with a total population of 175,000, exposed residents to PFAS in drinking water. It released the results in June. However, EWG says there are at least 116 such installations, with more than 640,000 likely exposed to PFAS in their drinking water.

EWG estimates it would take 50 years to clean up military base PFAS contamination at the current rate. The group recommends Congress provide at least $2.75 billion in total PFAS cleanup funding to the military in 2024, with $2 billion for active military sites and $750 million for former military installations which have been shut down.

Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Problems

One example of how past exposures are relevant is Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine training base in North Carolina, which was plagued by water contamination problems from PFAS and numerous other toxic chemicals which millions of service members, family members and other individuals were exposed to for decades.

Estimates suggest that more than a million Marines and their family members were exposed to contaminated Camp Lejeune water between the early 1950s and late 1980s, with some reports suggesting that toxic chemicals from Camp Lejeune may be responsible for more than 50,000 cases of breast cancer, 28,000 cases of bladder cancer, and 24,000 cases of renal cancer, as well as thousands of cases involve Parkinson’s disease and other health complications. It is also believed that Camp Lejeune water caused birth defects and wrongful death for thousands of unborn children exposed in utero.

For years, Camp Lejeune water injury claims have been denied by the U.S. government, based on qualified immunity defenses and the North Carolina statute of limitations, which was already expired by the time the problems at the Marine base were discovered. However, President Biden and the U.S. Congress have now opened a two year window for veterans, family members and others exposed to the water for at least 30 days between 1953 and 1987 to pursue compensation for their injuries.

A rapidly growing number of Camp Lejeune lawsuits are now filed by individuals diagnosed with various different types of cancer and other injuries. The Department of the Navy has received notice that at least 60,000 claims will be filed, and the number of lawsuits is expected to continue to grow over the next two years, before deadline to bring claims expires in August 2024.

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