Oregon National Guard bases found to have trace elements of toxic fluorinated chemicals in their water supplies will not receive cleanup funding from a defense spending bill passed by the U.S. Senate.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, which was approved Tuesday, excluded a provision that would have designated perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, as a “hazardous substance” under the federal Superfund law.
Inclusion of the provision would have required the federal Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the PFAS chemicals, according to Alex Formuzis, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit .
The provision was contentious among lawmakers. Democrats sought to retain the provision but ultimately bowed to Republicans in order to save other parts of the spending bill, such as a rule that gives federal employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the only Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, said Democrats insisted on dropping a separate provision that would have required the EPA to establish a drinking water standard for any PFAS.
“Democrats rejected a real opportunity to protect our drinking water from dangerous levels of PFAS chemicals,” Walden said. “It did not have to be this way.”
Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley supported earlier versions of the bill but voted against the final version after the bipartisan PFAS provisions were stripped out, calling it a “massive failure and dereliction of duty” to remove the provisions.
The chemicals, dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in nature, are used as an ingredient in firefighting foam, which is commonly used in training exercises on military bases.
While PFAS chemicals already in the ground could persist for decades or centuries, the bill does include a provision banning the inclusion of the chemicals in firefighting foam by 2024, preventing more of the chemicals from entering the soil and water on military bases. It will also phase out the military’s use of PFAS in food packaging and expand monitoring for PFAS in tap and groundwater.
The bill requires that the chemicals be added to the Toxic Release Inventory, which requires companies to report the type of quantity of the chemicals they release into the environment.
The current level of PFAS chemicals at 10 National Guard bases in Oregon falls within those considered safe by the EPA. But some scientists are concerned that even low levels are unhealthy.
The Superfund program, administered by the EPA, is designed to investigate and clean up sites that have been contaminated with hazardous substances. The sites managed under the program are referred to as Superfund sites.
Drinking-water supplies at the 10 army installations in Oregon contain trace elements of PFAS chemicals, according to Department of Defense data viewed by The Bulletin.
The affected sites include the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program on Dodds Road near Bend and the Central Oregon Unit Training Equipment Site east of Redmond.
PFAS in water that have tested well above EPA recommendations have been linked to various medical conditions in humans and animals, including thyroid disease and kidney cancer.
Oregon’s National Guard reports that the drinking water at the Youth Challenge Program is “substantially below” the EPA health advisory.
“There has been no evidence at this time to determine a need for a cleanup,” according to an email from Stephen Bomar, director of public affairs for the Oregon Military Department. The drinking water will be tested again at the Youth Challenge Program site in 2020, Bomar said.
The Department of Environmental Quality will evaluate the federal action and will track other proposed actions at both federal and state levels, Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said in an email.
“The DEQ’s focus is to identify the most effective and implementable ways to address PFAS in Oregon,” Gleim said.