Congressmen’s letter presses DOD on water contamination
A trio of local congressmen continues to press the military about chemicals being found in drinking water across the country, including in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, of Middletown, Pat Meehan, R-7, of Upper Darby, and Brendan Boyle, D-13, of Northeast Philadelphia, have been questioning the Department of Defense about a class of chemicals called perfluorinated compounds, which were ingredients in firefighting foams used for decades at hundreds of military bases.
The trio sent a new letter to the DOD on Tuesday, questioning why the military continued to use the foams after learning they were dangerous rather than switching to another foam.
The questioning follows a series of investigative reports by this news organization, which examined what the military knew about the foams and when.
In early June, we obtained a written account of a contentious 2001 meeting of firefighting foam manufacturers. According to the document, chemical company 3M had announced it would no longer make the foams after growing concerned about the hazards of PFOS, a perfluorinated compound that was the primary ingredient of the company’s foams. The meeting account stated that a 3M representative read a letter from the Department of Defense that appeared to acknowledge that PFOS was toxic, bioaccumulated in the blood of animals and didn't degrade in the environment.
Citing the report, the three congressmen wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, asking him for a copy of the 2001 DOD letter and other information.
On Tuesday, Fitzpatrick’s office released a copy of the DOD’s response, which confirmed that such a memo was sent from the DOD to various government agencies in February 2001. That memo, plus a wealth of other prior government documentation, was the subject of a second investigative report published by this news organization in July. The documents were provided by Williams Cuker Berezofksy, a Philadelphia law firm suing the federal government over the contamination.
In their Tuesday response to DOD, the congressmen questioned why the foam products were allowed on the military’s qualified products list if the military knew they were hazardous in 2001. The congressmen quoted from the military’s current product specifications, which states that foam products “shall have no adverse effect on the health of personnel when used for its intended purpose.”
The congressmen argued that “even in 2001,” the DOD wasn't following its own specifications because the department knew PFOS and sister chemical PFOA “indeed caused adverse effects on the health of personnel.”
Citing 2001 as a period when the military discussed which foams could replace PFOS-based foams, the congressmen also questioned why the military chose to rely on foams that were created using a similar, “telomer” chemistry. Those foams were also eventually phased out after studies showed they broke down into PFOA to varying extents.
“Why was the decision made to only review PFOA and certain telomer chemicals, instead of expanding the search?” the letter continued, naming two other foam alternatives it said existed in 2001.
The letter also requested a “comprehensive update” on the DOD’s efforts to find an “effective alternative to PFOS/PFOA-containing foam.”
As we previously reported, foam companies have created foam products they say are free of PFOS, PFOA, and similar chemicals, although experts say the formulations have yet to be independently evaluated. The military has updated its qualified products list to require the purchase of the newer foams.
The congressmen’s letter did not question the speed at which the military evaluated potential drinking water contamination. As reported in July, various documents indicate the military knew potentially dangerous foam byproducts had reached groundwater under military bases by 2001, and were even told by a contractor that the byproducts could be reaching drinking water supplies.
Widespread testing for such exposures didn't occur until recently. In 2014, the drinking water of 70,000 local residents and military personnel was found to be contaminated, placing local communities among the most significantly exposed in a growing list of affected communities nationwide.
Asked if he was concerned about the timeline of drinking water investigations, Boyle stated: "Our fight includes securing funding for environmental remediation and drinking water safety today and into the future, as well as getting to the bottom of what was known, and when, about these chemicals and their potential threat to drinking water contamination."
Fitzpatrick's office said that is has "approached the issue of water contamination from all sides — from ‘who knew what, when’ to immediate health screenings and remediation of the contaminated sites. Congressman Fitzpatrick continues to press for information pertaining to the military’s use of these chemicals."