The military is looking for PFAS pollution at N.C. bases, but cleaning it up will take decades
The Department of Defense is testing hundreds of military sites around the country, including dozens in North Carolina, for contamination from chemicals known by the acronym PFAS. The chemicals are used in a host of products and often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t fully break down in the environment. Some have been linked with health problems including cancer.
That’s why on a recent day, at a small Marine Corps installation called Bogue Field on the mainland across from Emerald Isle, a team of contract technicians and geologists were clustered around a truck-sized drilling rig as it bored into the soft, sandy soil.
They were drilling wells — 23 of them at carefully-chosen locations dotted around the concrete runways. Soil and water from the wells will be tested for PFAS.
“And then once we get that data, then we'll evaluate whether we need to come back and collect additional samples or whether we need to move the investigation on,” said Kristi Francisco, a remediation project manager with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk, who was overseeing the work.
Military firefighters have used the field for practice, and the flame-suppressing foam they use contains at least one kind of PFAS. Pollution from that type of foam is driving the bulk of the military’s problem with the chemicals.
It has been evaluating PFAS pollution at 700 sites, and Congress just mandated it finish the task by the end of next year.
The Pentagon also must develop a timeline for cleaning the contaminated soil and water. It’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars on PFAS efforts already, and Congress just earmarked another $517 million.
It will eventually need even more, said Richard Kidd, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment and Energy Resilience.
“This problem will take years to define and decades to clean up,” he said.
Of the nearly 700 sites on the Pentagon’s evaluation list, 11 are in North Carolina. Those include the major bases, National Guard installations, an ammunition shipping depot, and a former missile factory.
But those 11 actually encompass dozens and 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 Marine bases on the list.
Meanwhile, at the Army’s Fort Bragg and nearby Camp Mackall, 42 sites have been tested, with the results now being studied.
That's all part of the evaluation phase. Then comes the cleanup — which Kidd said will be a long process.
“Right now, we really only have one technology for cleanup. It's carbon activated filter," Kidd said. "We pump groundwater up, and we run it through the filter."
“So is there a better faster way to do this? The Department of Defense is spending a lot of money to try to find that out,” he said.
The cleanup phase hasn’t really started, though in some other states, PFAS contamination was obvious enough that the Pentagon already has installed systems to pump up groundwater, clean it, and put it back in the ground.
Critics of the Defense Department say it should be doing more, faster. Colin O’Neil is legislative director for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.
“Department of Defense employees testified last year that at the current pace, it could take 30 years or longer to clean up PFAS at military installations across the country,” he said, “while for the defense communities and military families who live on or near these installations is just simply unacceptable."
But Kidd said the military has to follow the existing science and regulations, which are still evolving.
“We've learned a lot in the last 20 years about how to detect these chemicals and about possible health effects," he said. "But if you look at the totality, we actually have just started the process of acquiring knowledge. And we do not know specifically the health effects of the different chemicals in different concentrations and different delivery mechanisms.”
In 2016, the EPA set stricter guidelines for PFAS in drinking water, and the Pentagon began testing water in and near installations. By 2018 it had found potentially dangerous levels in at least 126 places.
Kidd said the military moved quickly where it discovered serious problems.
“If we found PFAS in those water systems, we immediately put on a filter, and so we are taking the PFAS out of those systems,” he said.
And he added there's a crucial point to understand for those living on or near installations like Bogue Field.
“To the Department of Defense’s knowledge, no one in America, on or off installations, is drinking water that has PFAS in it above EPA’s established levels that was caused by the Department of Defense,” Kidd said.
The Pentagon’s battle with PFAS is only part of the Biden Administration's efforts to investigate and clean up the chemicals, reduce their use, and learn more about their health effects.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan — who formerly served as North Carolina's top environmental official — made PFAS a major focus during his time here. He paid particular attention to a type called GenX, believed to be especially toxic. An industrial plant discharged it into the Cape Fear River for decades.
In October, the Biden administration unveiled a range of initiatives, including a roadmap of the steps Regan’s agency will take to research, regulate, and clean up PFAS pollution.
“This really is the first time the EPA has proposed meaningful deadlines for tackling this problem,” said O’Neil, the environmental advocacy organization spokesman.
He said his group is pleased about the fresh emphasis on PFAS, but even more needs to be done.
“Unfortunately, resources dwindled for the EPA under the Trump administration, and we hope that the President's budget request will significantly inject resources in the EPA so they can expand their standard siting, cleanup, and regulatory needs if we're actually going to address this problem,” he said.
Congress included $10 billion for PFAS cleanup in the sprawling infrastructure bill it passed last year, but some think it may cost much more. Hundreds of the chemicals are used in a long list of consumer products, including fast food packaging, non-stick pans, carpet, makeup, and stain-repellent coatings on clothes.
Kidd said the military clean-up should be more straightforward than the civilian effort, because it's dealing mainly with the PFAS in firefighting foam.
“And for that, it’s wherever we used it, or wherever we trained with it,” he said. “So we're able to track down our issue and go after it in terms of investigation and cleanup and remediation.
But Kidd said the Pentagon's cleanup will still be long and expensive. And it will need more funding once the full scope of the contamination — and the health costs — are clear.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.