Air Force fielding questions after discharging contaminated wastewater for years


Col. Douglas Schiess, 21st Space Wing commander, answers questions about wastewater during a press conference at Peterson Fire Station 1, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)
Col. Douglas Schiess, 21st Space Wing commander, answers questions about wastewater during a press conference at Peterson Fire Station 1, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

The Department of Defense has a huge problem on its hands. Hazardous, wastewater runoff is negatively impacting clean-water sources.

It appears the Air Force is one of the biggest offenders.

The military is now testing nearly 400 bases and has confirmed water contamination at or near more than three dozen, according to an analysis of data by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. The new numbers offer the best look to date at the potential scope of the problem, Stars & Stripes reports.

There is undeniable evidence the Air Force dumped 150,000 gallons of wastewater as recently as October ’16 into Colorado’s Fountain Creek — the dump could even be considered malicious and has prompted an Air Force investigation, The Gazette reports.

The Creek, like many other clean water sources in the U.S., took on water known to contain high levels of perfluorinated compounds or PFCs. These PFCs are found in firefighting foam used throughout the military. The PFCs are linked to several forms of cancer along with other illnesses.

The Air Force says combating the problem is a top priority, but are its efforts paying off?

“The Air Force’s priority is protecting human health and drinking water sources,” said Ann Stefanek, Media Operations Officer at Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

The Stars & Stripes reports despite more than $150 million spent on clean up efforts thus far; the process has been slow and seemingly disjointed. The Air Force, for example, has completed sampling at nearly all of its targeted bases; the Navy, barely 10 percent. The Army has not begun. The branches and the Pentagon say they are coordinating, but have varying responses on how many bases must be tested, and limited information about remediation timelines and cost.

The issue is leaving citizens concerned and legislators seeking answers.

The fog in this water war is so thick that Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., moved to amend the defense-spending bill urging the Pentagon to release a list of all bases that used the foam.

In Michigan, contaminated water from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base is moving south of two waterways previously thought of as natural buffers. A well near a local high school also has tested positive for chemical concentrations above the advisory level.

Michigan Republican Sen. Jim Stamas sponsored the bill after military officials informed him last year that the Air Force would supply an alternative water source to affected properties if Michigan passed a law requiring the Air Force take action.

“I am extremely disappointed in the U.S. Air Force for not living up to its word and its responsibilities,” Stamas tells The Detroit News. “The federal government needs to be held accountable for what they did.”

While the DoD continues its investigation, experts say the problem could grow.

“I am not going to be terribly surprised if, once a month for the next several years or something, we hear of a small community somewhere that was impacted,” Christopher Higgins, a top researcher on this type of contamination and a professor at the Colorado School of Mines tells Stars & Stripes. “We’re going to be dealing with this for quite some time.”

The Air Force contends it’s working within the law to make things right — even in the absence of contamination analysis.

“In the absence of other applicable criteria, if a drinking water well yields PFOS/PFOA levels above the levels in the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory because of Air Force operations, the Air Force will immediately provide clean drinking water in accordance with the authority it already has under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),” Stefanek said.

Validating legislators’ concerns however, is the conflicting position of Air Force spokespersons.

In Michigan, where they passed a law saying the military must supply safe drinking water to Oscoda residents whose wells were polluted with toxic chemicals from Wurtsmith, the Air Force spokesman said, “The Michigan law does discriminate as it only applies to federal and state agencies, not to all entities and persons,” Mark Kinkade told The Detroit News.

The Pentagon says it’s not that the law discriminates … it’s that the law is constrictive. Stars & Stripes reports contamination is also cropping up near airports, private plants, and fire stations. Attention has largely focused on the military because of extreme cases near bases where about 60,000 residents are affected … herein lies the confusion.

“Regarding the State of Michigan ACT 545, the Air Force is constrained by federal law and cannot legally comply with the act’s mandates to provide an alternative water supply or to reimburse the state of Michigan when it provides an alternative water supply,” Stefanek said. “Among other reasons, the Michigan law is not one of general applicability since it only applies to federal and state agencies — not to all entities or persons who may have impacted the water of state citizens.”

At the end of the day, legislators want the Air Force to increase its sense of urgency.

“The science on these substances is evolving in the direction of them being known to be more dangerous than we previously thought,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, tells The Detroit News. “I don’t think they (Air Force) are moving with the urgency they should be.”

The Air Force says it’s committed to cleaning up its mistakes.

“The Air Force continues to work closely with state officials on this important matter and is committed to protecting the health and drinking water supply of the local community near Wurtsmith,” Stefanek said.

In Colorado, the Air Force is reiterating its contention that the service has been a good neighbor. The service has contributed $4.3 million toward filtering water for surrounding communities. Peterson Air Force Base is also replacing the foam in its firetrucks with a chemical deemed less hazardous.

The old foam is being disposed of as toxic waste.

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