The fight is far from over
For decades, the Department of Defense used specialized foams containing polyflouroalkyl substances —most commonly known as PFAS—to put out fires ignited by aviation fuels, including during regular firefighting drills and training exercises.
While effective at extinguishing fires, over the years, we came to learn that the two PFAS chemicals in those foams, “PFOA” and “PFOS,” are harmful to human health. These chemicals are linked to adverse health impacts, including life-threatening cancers, liver damage and thyroid disease.
Last week, I had the honor of welcoming two heroes who have been gravely impacted by PFAS on military bases, Jim and Richelle Holmes.
Toward the end of his 30 year career as both an Army and Air Force helicopter pilot, Jim and his family lived at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida while he flew combat operations in Iraq. Unbeknownst to Richelle and their daughter, Kaela, they were also facing a daily threat right there at home. After years of use in military drills, Patrick AFB has the third highest maximum PFAS detection of any military installation in the country, with levels of PFOS and PFOA at more than 4 million parts per trillion – more than 57,000 times as high as EPA’s drinking water health advisory. Following four years of living on the base, their daughter Kaela was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. Tragedy struck earlier this year when Kaela lost her life to this horrible disease.
Sadly, I fear that the Holmes family is not alone. Military communities throughout the country are still drinking water with high levels of PFOA and PFOS. We’ve seen the problem right in our own backyard, with the chemicals impacting drinking water quality in and around both Dover Air Force Base and the New Castle Air National Guard Base. There are almost 300 known U.S. military installations with water systems impacted by PFAS contamination.
But the threat of these chemicals are felt well beyond military installations. PFAS contamination stemming from non-military industrial production has also plagued communities like Blades, in Sussex County, which just last year had to install a carbon filtration system to make sure the water is safe to drink. According to recent data, up to 110 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-contaminated drinking water.
Earlier this month, we had a chance to combat this problem head-on in our yearly national defense authorization bill. There was, and is, bipartisan agreement in Congress that we need to speed up the Trump Administration’s long-promised plans to list these two chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, which would force polluters— like the Department of Defense — to clean up contamination. The House voted unanimously for this policy, and my bill that would make that Superfund designation, the PFAS Action Act, has a bipartisan group of 53 cosponsors. There was also unanimously approved Senate language that would make the EPA set a federal drinking water standard to help keep dangerous levels of these chemicals out of drinking water systems.
The must-pass defense authorization bill presented a clear opportunity for Congress to give military communities along with cities and towns across America the help they so desperately need and deserve. But because of behind-the-scenes, beltway politics from both sides of the aisle, we missed that opportunity and failed to seize our chance to get these policies to the president’s desk. This outcome betrayed the solemn responsibility we have as lawmakers to protect our military families and all residents of this country.
Our men and women in uniform and the families who love them sacrifice enough already. They should be able to serve our country with the peace of mind that our military will do the right thing and protect families from harmful water contamination. We owe it to the Holmes family and to communities throughout the country to do the right thing. While this outcome was disappointing, the fight is far from over. In the new year, I look forward to re-engaging with my colleagues to get these important PFAS provisions across the finish line. Military families and the millions of other Americans impacted by this pollution deserve no less.