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DoD Creates PFAS Task Force As Newburgh PFOS Issue Ages

WAMC, Allison Dunne
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon during a DoD public forum in Newburgh in November 2018,

The U.S. Department of Defense is establishing a PFAS Task Force to address contamination at more than 400 military installations and surrounding communities across the nation. Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh is one of those places.

In a July memo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that, effective immediately, he is establishing a PFAS Task Force, chaired by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment. That assistant secretary is Robert McMahon, who addressed a DoD public forum in Newburgh in November 2018, marking the first time DoD senior-level officials held such a forum since the city’s PFOS drinking water contamination was uncovered in 2016. Melanie Benesh is a legislative attorney with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Environmental Working Group. She says DoD action is long overdue.

“And the kind of action that we want to see, we want to see cleanup happening aggressively and quickly because these communities deserve better,” Benesh says.

Newburgh’s water contamination emanates from Stewart Air National Guard base as the result of the historic use of firefighting foam, a common thread among the military bases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on an interim carbon filtration system for the Recreation Pond outflow at the base, from where some of the highest concentrations of PFOS flow. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper. He’s concerned with cleanup standards, which is one of the focus areas of the DoD’s task force.

“We’ve seen on the ground in Newburgh how the Department of Defense is quick to lean on weaker, federal standards even though the state is moving forward with more health protective standards for the chemicals in question here,” Shapley says. “So that last thing I’d want to see is another wall between protecting the public, which the state right now is doing a better job of than the federal government — and we think the state even needs to go farther — so we don’t want yet another crutch for the Department of Defense to lean on to try to enforce weaker protections for the public.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an advisory level for PFOA and PFOS of 70 parts per trillion each. The New York state Drinking Water Quality Council has recommended maximum contaminant levels of 10 parts per trillion each for PFOA and PFOS. The public comment period on the state recommendations ends September 23. Shapley has another concern.

“We have seen a very slow response from the Department of Defense in Newburgh. We’re talking three and a half years later and it’s almost like they’re just getting going,” says Shapley. “So I do have a concern that another task force, another process, hopefully it will yield good results but, if it means more delays before there’s action, then that’s unacceptable.”

DoD officials in April, during their second public forum in Newburgh, explained that they must follow CERCLA, or Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known as Superfund. The Environmental Working Group’s Benesh:

“It has been 40 years, at least, that DoD has at least suspected, if not known, that this was a real problem and that this was going to turn into a real problem, and they have been testing now for a couple of years and confirming the presence of these chemicals in a number of places, including Stewart Air Force[sic] [National Guard] base in Newburgh, New York,” says Benesh. “So I’m not very sympathetic to arguments about process and delay. There have been a lot of times to get those processes into motion.”

Other focus areas of the PFAS Task Force include public and congressional perceptions of DoD's efforts and health effects. Again, Benesh.

“We think it’s important that this task force be a task force that is focused on action and is focused on cleanup and is not focused on PR around this PFAS issue,” Benesh says.

Democratic U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says Esper committed to her during his July 16 Senate confirmation hearing that he’d prioritize the PFAS issue and establish a task force. Shaheen says it will be critical that this new panel compels substantial changes in the Department’s approach to combating PFAS contamination.

Defense Secretary Esper’s memo directs the PFAS Task Force to report on its composition and charter within 30 days, and provide to the defense secretary an update within 180 days.

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