The military is scanning for PFAS contamination at NC bases, but cleaning up will take decades

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The Department of Defense is testing hundreds of military sites across the country, including dozens in North Carolina, for contamination from chemicals known by the acronym PFAS. The chemicals are used in a wide range of products and are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not completely break down in the environment. Some have been linked to health problems, including cancer.

That’s why the other day, at a small Marine Corps facility called Bogue Field on the mainland across from the Emerald Isle, a team of contract engineers and geologists gathered around a truck-sized oil rig that was drilling into the soft, sandy soil.

They drilled wells – 23 of them in carefully chosen locations scattered around the concrete runways. Soil and water from the wells are tested for PFAS.

“And once we have that data, we will evaluate whether we need to come back and collect additional samples or whether we need to continue the investigation,” said Kristi Francisco, a remediation project manager with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk, who oversaw the work .

Military firefighters have used the field for practice, and the flame-suppressing foam they use contains at least one type of PFAS. Contamination from this type of foam causes most of the military’s chemical problem.

It has assessed PFAS pollution at 700 sites, and Congress has just mandated that the task be completed by the end of next year.

The Pentagon must also develop a schedule for cleaning up the contaminated soil and water. It has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on PFAS efforts, and Congress has just earmarked an additional $517 million.

It will eventually take more, said Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience.

“It will take years to define this problem and decades to eliminate it,” he said.

Of the nearly 700 sites on the Pentagon’s evaluation list, 11 are in North Carolina. These include the main bases, National Guard facilities, an ammunition shipping depot and a former missile factory.

But those 11 actually include dozens of individual locations where firefighting foam is believed to have been used or stored.

Bogue Field is among several sites that fall under Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point — the two North Carolina Navy bases on the list.

Meanwhile, 42 sites have been tested at the Army’s Fort Bragg and nearby Camp Mackall, the results of which are now being studied.

This is all part of the evaluation phase. Then comes the cleanup — which Kidd says will be a long process.

“Right now we really only have one technology for cleaning. It’s a charcoal filter,” Kidd said. “We pump groundwater up and let it run through the filter.”

“So is there a better and faster way to do this? The Department of Defense is spending a lot of money trying to figure that out,” he said.

The cleanup hasn’t really started yet, although in some other states PFAS contamination has been so evident that the Pentagon has already installed systems to pump up groundwater, clean it, and put it back in the ground.

Kenny Sargent of Geologic Exploration, a Statesville-based well contractor, operates a rig at Bogue Field. He was part of a team that drilled 23 wells to test soil and groundwater for PFAS.

Defense Department critics say it should do more and faster. Colin O’Neil is Legislative Director of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group.

“Department of Defense officials testified last year that at the current pace, it could take 30 years or more to eliminate PFAS at military installations across the country,” he said, “while for the defense communities and military families living on or near.” live these installations are simply unacceptable.”

But Kidd said the military must follow existing science and regulations, which are still evolving.

“We’ve learned a lot over the last 20 years about how to identify these chemicals and the possible health effects,” he said. And we don’t know exactly the health effects of the different chemicals at different concentrations and different delivery mechanisms.”

In 2016, the EPA issued stricter guidelines for PFAS in drinking water, and the Pentagon began testing water in and near facilities. By 2018, it had found potentially dangerous levels in at least 126 locations.

Kidd said the military moved quickly where it discovered serious problems.

Mike Karafa, field team leader and geologist at environmental consultancy Jacobs, documents soil properties in a sample collected from a test well at Bogue Field.

Mike Karafa, field team leader and geologist at environmental consultancy Jacobs, documents soil properties in a sample collected from a test well at Bogue Field.

“When we find PFAS in those water systems, we immediately put in a filter and remove the PFAS from those systems,” he said.

And he added that there is a crucial point for those who live on or near facilities like Bogue Field to understand.

“To the knowledge of the Department of Defense, no one in America, whether inside or outside of facilities, is drinking water containing PFAS above EPA-established levels caused by the Department of Defense,” Kidd said.

The Pentagon’s fight against PFAS is just part of the Biden administration‘s effort to study and eliminate the chemicals, reduce their use, and learn more about their health effects.

Michael Regan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency – formerly serving as North Carolina’s Chief Environmental Officer – made PFAS a major focus during his time here. He paid special attention to a type called GenX, which is believed to be particularly venomous. An industrial plant dumped it into the Cape Fear River for decades.

In October, the Biden administration unveiled a series of initiatives, including a roadmap for steps Regan’s agency will take to research, regulate, and eliminate PFAS pollution.

“This is truly the first time the EPA has proposed reasonable timeframes for resolution of this issue,” said O’Neil, spokesman for the environmental organization.

He said his group was pleased with the new emphasis on PFAS but more needed to be done.

“Unfortunately, resources for the EPA have dwindled under the Trump administration, and we hope that the President’s budget proposal will provide the EPA with significant resources to expand their default location, cleanup, and regulatory requirements when we do.” tackle the problem,” he said.

Congress included $10 billion for PFAS cleaning in the sweeping infrastructure bill it passed last year, but some believe it could cost much more. Hundreds of chemicals are used in a long list of consumer products, including fast-food packaging, non-stick pans, carpets, makeup, and stain-resistant coatings on clothing.

Kidd said that the military cleanup should be more straightforward than the civilian effort since it’s mostly about the PFAS in firefighting foam.

“And for that, it’s everywhere we’ve used it or wherever we’ve trained with it,” he said. “This way we are able to track down our problem and follow up in terms of investigation, cleanup and remediation.

But Kidd said the Pentagon’s cleanup will be long and expensive. And more funding will be needed once the full extent of the contamination — and healthcare costs — is clear.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration reporting on American military life and veterans. Funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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