Military contamination of America’s drinking water – How bad is it?

no drinking water

March 3, 2017 – At least 664 sites nationwide to be examined by Department of Defense, including sites at Puget Sound. EPA study finds 6 million Americans in 33 states dealing with contaminated drinking water from perfluorinated chemicals.

This is a long and rather disturbing post. News stories are popping up across the country and beyond, about contamination of aquifers and residential drinking water supplies caused in large part by the US military’s long-term use of Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) for firefighting and training on base hangars and runways. This stuff looks harmless – here’s a closeup:

AFFF closeup

Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) closeup. It’s used by the military for for training and firefighting.

So that you know what Aqueous Film-Forming Foam looks like in action, (because it’s amazing) here are videos from two foam spill accidents, both from hangar system malfunctions, one at the San Jose (CA) airport and another covering an entire city block of a suburb of San Francisco. The latter was described by news media as a “tidal wave of suds.” Screen shots follow:

AFFF foam covers street

AFFF spill in SF Bay Area, California.

People watching foam spill

People were fascinated by the “tidal wave of suds.” Newscasters mostly made light of it because they didn’t know about its harmful qualities.

Unfortunately, either nobody knew or nobody mentioned that these suds, through which you can watch a bicyclist disappear as he speeds along, contain some of the most toxic and persistent substances ever known, and cause a variety of illnesses including cancer.

Foam-covered bicyclist

Nobody warned the public about the carcinogenic nature of AFFF; the worst caution was, “It can burn your eyes.” As a result, some people played in the suds. In 1997, the US Army Corps of Engineers told other branches of the armed services to treat AFFF as a hazardous material. That’s 20 years ago.

While quantities of AFFF chemicals stored on military bases and in fire trucks along runways seem small, consider the fact that 600 gallons of it would combine with about 20,000 gallons of water to make about 80 tons of fire suppressant. Being hard to clean up and easily airborne, most of it ends up seeping into the ground or flowing into waterways. It doesn’t take much of it to contaminate a large body of clean water.

An article in the Colorado Springs Gazette reported: “An EPA advisory in May warned that water could be harmful if such chemicals surpassed more than 70 parts per trillion – significantly lower than an advisory issued in 2009. Speaking again to the power of the foam, the 3 percent chemical with 97 percent water solution used to fight fires is 300,000 parts per trillion. A tablespoon of the chemical in 20 Olympic-sized pools would easily exceed the EPA threshold.”

Wind catches foam2

AFFF is light and easily windborne.

There’s no getting around the fact that while AFFF really works on fires, one must consider that when entire aquifers get contaminated and cancer strikes children as well as adults, we have to ask ourselves if the cost is too high. According to an online brochure from the Department of Defense’s own program for addressing contamination by AFFF, there is no way to treat groundwater in situ for perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and very limited options for treating it ex situ, meaning the Navy would have to build a massive and very expensive treatment plant to extract and treat the groundwater, like the one they’re considering building in Bethpage, New York.


Diagram of the contamination plume around a military runway at Bethpage, NY. Deepest contamination found so far is 800 feet underground.

In mid-October 2016, 150,000 gallons of AFFF-contaminated water [the equivalent of more than 16 gasoline tankers] were spilled from an Air Force base in Colorado into a municipal sewage system, thoroughly contaminating it. Military officials said they weren’t required by law to notify downstream users of the water in the contaminant’s path because, as one said, “at this point it is a non-regulated substance.” The base didn’t even sample the wastewater to determine the level of contamination, and did not make the spill public for 6 days. Now an entire aquifer is contaminated, and thousands of people are without reliable drinking water.

bottled water

These perfluorinated chemicals, which are very persistent in the environment, kill slowly. Immune system and liver damage, along with cancers, especially of the kidneys and testicles, plus fetal development problems and low birth weight are a major concern. At a minimum, AFFF chemicals can cause high cholesterol, a precursor to heart disease. A 2011 Army study found a possible link to autism. A European study has found that the replacement chemical for AFFF is already being found in blood and is causing similar health concerns. Hundreds of towns across the country are dealing with this and other military-caused contamination problems.

Groundwater flow in blue arrows

The hard-to-see blue arrows show the direction of travel of a mile-long contaminated groundwater plume at Whidbey Island. Unfortunately, the plume is moving in multiple directions.

This bad news has come home to roost. The Navy has used AFFF for decades at Whidbey Island’s Ault Field and at its outlying landing field (OLF-Coupeville,) a WW2-era runway that’s 3,000 feet too short for Growlers to land on. OLF Coupeville is also smack in the middle of a residential area where many people get their drinking water from private wells. Since November 2016, roughly 2,000 people whose drinking water has been contaminated by a mile-long expanding underground plume coming from the runways, have been forced to turn to bottled water for home use. For awhile, the Navy was only testing wells if residential owners requested it, which meant that only those who were aware of the contamination problems were getting their water tested. This has many people whose wells have not been tested now wondering if their water is safe to drink. Given what is well-known about the movement of toxic plumes through soils and groundwater from similar situations in other areas, that’s a daunting question. In January 2017 the Navy produced a report detailing its plan to test drinking water, but it’s so heavily redacted that it’s not very useful. (See below.) Why would the Navy withhold so much information? It’s not classified, it should all be public knowledge. The Navy isn’t drinking that contaminated water, the people are, and some probably have been drinking it for awhile. The Navy at Whidbey Island gets its drinking water from another source, not groundwater.

And remember, the more Growlers there are near residential areas, and the shorter the runway, the more crash risk there is, and the more need there is to train to fight fires. 

Screen Shot NAVFAC report redacted

Cover of Navy testing plan report.

Redaction, NAVFAC report

One of many redacted pages in the above report.

Earlier this year, the Port of San Diego sued the Navy over a toxic plume that is contaminating San Diego Bay. Literally, the whole bay. In 3 counties in Pennsylvania, drinking water for 70,000 people has been contaminated with the same toxic chemicals as on Whidbey Island, and people are falling ill. Because the Navy was so unresponsive, even refusing to pay for blood tests and ignoring a request from Pennsylvania’s Governor, a state legislator had to publicly urge these victims to sue. What does it say about the Navy’s arrogance when elected representatives are so powerless after exhausting all avenues, that they tell you, in order to get the Navy to do the right thing after it has poisoned your water, you must spend your own money on a lawsuit? What does it say when they redact a report you need to see?

NAVFAC report redacted page

Another redacted page from the above report.

The most disturbing part? They’ve known all along. For decades the military has ignored warnings from its own researchers. According to a news article in Colorado from last October, “Multiple studies dating back to the 1970s found health risks from the foam, and even an agreement 16 years ago between the Environmental Protection Agency and the foam’s main manufacturer did not curtail the Air Force’s usage. Until drinking water tests announced by health officials this year revealed contaminated wells here, the Air Force did almost nothing to publicly acknowledge the danger of the firefighting chemical.”

Although we’d love to give the Navy the benefit of the doubt about possibly not knowing the foam is so toxic, that’s not going to happen, considering the other unacceptable ways they’ve behaved toward their neighbors. They knew AFFF was harmful. A long time ago. In 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers had told Fort Carson to stop using the foam, and in 1997 it told soldiers to treat it as a hazardous material, calling it “harmful to the environment.” There is no way the Navy did not know that AFFF is harmful.

New chemicals to replace PFCs are proving problematic to health. 

A legal settlement reported in the National Law Review would require EPA to create regulations on this contamination by 2019, but if EPA is defunded or eliminated, what then?

Another irony on Whidbey Island is this: In a media interview, Whidbey Island Navy spokesman Mike Welding sought to reassure a nervous public by saying the Navy will remove the contamination, but the Navy knows full well that this cannot be done. He said, “The Navy is going to provide those people with safe drinking water until we can figure out how to remove the contaminant from the water well, filter it out or something like that. It’s something that still needs to be worked out.” Unfortunately, a statement from the Department of Defense’s own “MERIT” program that is easily found on the internet contradicts Mr. Welding: “Currently, there are no in situ technologies and very limited ex situ options to treat soil or groundwater contaminated with PFCs.” This comes from a bulletin that has long been published and distributed to federal and state agencies.

Contaminated water

So why would the Navy mislead people into thinking their water can be decontaminated? Sadly, these are not isolated examples. The plight of hundreds of towns nationwide where drinking water has been contaminated by firefighting foam chemicals called PFCs and PFOAs, are being revealed in a long line of stories, which are most decidedly not fake news.

Let’s look at a few, shall we? The following 19 stories are FROM THE LAST TWO MONTHS ONLY, and do not include anything about recently discovered explosive ordnance in places such as the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, or the Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, or along a popular hiking trail in Hawaii. This is depressing as hell to read and it may make you very angry, but unless people get informed about the magnitude of the problem, many of us and future generations are going to need whatever remaining insurance we have to pay for treating the cancers and other diseases from unwittingly drinking water contaminated by our military.

Grateful thanks to the Center for Public Environmental Oversight for tracking this issue. 

19 stories from January and February 2017, of a few of at least 6 million people whose drinking water has been contaminated by the military:

Feb 22, 2017 – Long Island, New York: Chemicals used by the National Guard in airport firefighting exercises were found in eight of the 41 private water wells they tested. Five of them are above the EPA’s advisory level. Story here.

Feb 19, 2017 – Okinawa, Japan: Since 2002, at least 270 environmental accidents on U.S. Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have contaminated land and local waterways but, until now, almost none of these incidents has been made public. U.S. Marine internal reports highlight serious flaws in training and suggest that the lessons of past accidents have not been effectively implemented. Moreover, recent USMC guidelines order service members not to inform Japanese authorities of accidents deemed “politically sensitive”, raising concerns that many incidents may have gone unreported. Story here.

Feb 19, 2017 – Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: A daughter and her father, who both lived at Camp Lejeune, have been diagnosed cancer within a few months of each other, the cause being the water they drank while living at the base. Story here.

Feb 18, 2017 – Palm Beach, Florida: Several sites tested around Palm Beach International Airport, which was the WW2-era Morrison Field and the Palm Beach Air Force Base during the Korean War, show dangerous levels of contamination. A Trump club is included on a list of sites being investigated by the state. Story here.

Feb 10, Lake Huron, Great Lakes: Toxic chemicals from an abandoned military base have contaminated residential wells and reached Lake Huron; residents are worried about how far the plume will spread. Story here.

Feb 8, 2017 – San Francisco Shipyard: Fake soil tests have delayed the transfer of some parcels of land to the city for development, a Navy spokesman admits. Story here.

Feb 3, 2017 – Laurel Bay, South Carolina: New Navy guidance to medical providers treating those who’ve lived in the Laurel Bay housing area in South Carolina expands the concern over potential exposure to cancer-causing agents, now addressing adult cancer risks as well as pediatric ones. Story here.

Feb 2, 2017 – Three towns in Colorado: An Air Force official revealed to the county commissioners on Thursday that the service has a five-year plan to mitigate water contamination that recently had southern El Paso County residents searching for clean water sources after wells in Security, Widefield and Fountain were tainted by perfluorinated compounds from toxic firefighting foam. A news investigation in October revealed that the Air Force kept the foam in use despite Defense Department studies over the years that showed it was harmful to laboratory animals. Story here.

Feb 2, 2017 – Merrimac, New Hampshire: Residents concerned Army might renege on its agreement to provide safe drinking water to the town after contamination from the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Story here.

Jan 26, 2017 – Puget Sound, Washington: The Suquamish Tribe and two environmental organizations have sued the Navy for Clean Water Act violations that would harm salmon. Navy is scraping the hull of a decommissioned aircraft carrier and allowing copper-based paint to fall into bottom sediments. Story here.

Jan 24, 2017 – Four New Jersey towns: Air Force is testing drinking water wells used by private residences in four towns for contamination caused by fire fighting foam. Story here.

Jan 21, 2017 – Oak Harbor, Washington: A mile-long plume of chemical contamination that’s likely carcinogenic has migrated from the Navy base to under the city. Story here.

Jan 19, 2017 – Westfield, Massachusetts: Officials with the Barnes Air National Guard said this week they are taking all appropriate steps to investigate groundwater contamination that may have emanated from the Westfield air base. Story here.

Jan 16, 2017, Long Island, New York: Everyone is applauding passage of a bill that requires the Navy to report to Congress annually on the toxic groundwater plumes emanating from former manufacturing facilities run by the Navy and Northrop-Grumman. Story here.

Jan 12, 2017 – Ivyland, Pennsylvania: For the first time, public information reveals how much of the toxic, unregulated chemical PFOA has made its way into the blood of a local resident, who discovered she had 15 times the national average, and sued the Navy. Story here.

Jan 13, 2017 – Laurel Bay, South Carolina: Military moms fear contaminants at military housing base are giving children cancers. Story here.

Jan 12, 2017 – Niagara County, New York: More than 70 years after World War II-era bombs were manufactured at a site in Niagara County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has discovered soil there still contaminated by TNT and lead, and is proposing to clean it up. Story here.

Jan 10, 2017 – Lansing, Michigan: The state or federal government must now provide alternative water supplies to users whose water is contaminated as a result of substances migrating from government owned and operated properties, under state legislation signed today by the Governor. The legislation was prompted by groundwater and well contamination at the former federal Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. Story here.

Jan 6, 2017 – many locations: A review of a book by Joseph Hickman, titled “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” describes the open fire pits operated on over 230 U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan during our wars there. Every kind of waste – plastics; batteries; old ordnance; asbestos; pesticide containers; tires; biomedical, chemical and nuclear waste; dead animals; human feces; body parts; and corpses – was incinerated in them. Review here.

We could go on, with more stories from December 2016 about lead contamination at Bennington, Vermont, the same at Snohomish, Washington, we could talk about veterans drinking contaminated water in Michigan, pollution at a base in South Korea being 500 times normal levels, or with more stories from the US and beyond.

Testing water

A final bit of bumfuzzlery we report is this: On page 3-62 of the Navy’s recent Growler Draft EIS, which was published AFTER all the drinking water warnings came out and deals with Growler aircraft, but not with the toxic firefighting foam for the runways they use, all concerns about drinking water contamination are dismissed with this incredible statement about something that happened almost 20 years ago: “Remediation construction was completed in September 1997, human exposure and contaminated groundwater exposures are under control, and the OUs [Operable Units] at Ault Field and the Seaplane Base are ready for anticipated use (USEPA, 2016e).”

Say again? Human exposure and contaminated groundwater exposures are under control? This statement does not reference which contamination incident is being remediated, so unless a reader catches “1997,” it’d be awfully easy to misinterpret it. Given the weight of the other deficiencies in that Growler Draft EIS and the Navy’s foreknowledge of the drinking water contamination problem long before they published it, it looks like something more deliberate. It makes one wonder: why would the Navy print such a claim, knowing that its interpretation could mislead the public into thinking the contamination is under control, when in fact it’s just the opposite?

1 Where the Birds are - arcgis viewer

A reminder of where the birds are, too.

What can you do? USE YOUR VOICE! Now more than ever, you are needed. Every one of us is. Call a congressperson. Do it every day if you can, or at least 2 or 3 times a week. Write letters – to elected reps, the Navy, and to editors of newspapers. Inundate them all with mail objecting to this injustice, and to the noise, the pollution, the ruination of our local economies. To the fact that our entire national economy is based on war and oil. No single person has a magic cure for what’s ailing us, but together we can force elected officials to listen to us en masse, and to begin to heed our words and do what’s right. And if they refuse to do the right thing, we can keep working to get other people elected who will.

What should you NOT do?  Don’t allow the Navy to fall back on their old strategy, called “Monitored Natural Attenuation,” which is a bureaucratic piece of frippery that means, “Do nothing and let time take care of it.” We need action, and we need new policynow.  So that you’re ready for it, here is the Navy’s web page on Monitored Natural Attenuation, so you can inform yourself on what they are likely to propose for Whidbey and other areas. They’ve even developed software for estimating how long the plume will take as it travels through your drinking water wells.

Monitored Natural Attenuation

Navy diagram of “Monitored Natural Attenuation” of a contaminated groundwater plume.

Maybe it’s not too much to ask of a military that could get as much as an extra $54 billion out of our hides, to clean up after itself, take care of the innocent civilians it has harmed, and protect future generations without poisoning them. We can’t think of a more patriotic thing to do, unless perhaps it’s avoiding the elimination of the very agency that would oversee this massive cleanup on behalf of those current and future generations.

Child with cancer

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