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Democrats increase pressure on Pentagon over PFAS

Several lawmakers are pressuring the Defense Department to allocate money for cleanup of military bases in districts with high levels of contamination in their drinking water.

Democrats in particular have tried to pass legislation to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances to initiate federal cleanups, but a variety of proposals have failed to become law.

Lobbying the Pentagon to clean up bases and the surrounding areas is the next avenue for Democrats looking to address PFAS contamination concerns, as they keep looking for opportunities in must-pass legislation.

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, along with other Michigan lawmakers, sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett asking the agency to prioritize $60 million — allocated by Congress for cleanup — to start removing two types of PFAS — which are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — from drinking water.

"We have consistently heard from our constituents who are frustrated with the pace and scope of the Air Force's cleanup effort," according to the letter.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Reps. Dan Kildee, Debbie Dingell, Brenda Lawrence, Elissa Slotkin, Andy Levin, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaib also signed the letter.

For decades the military used firefighting foam that contained PFOA and PFOS because of their ability to quickly extinguish fires, but studies now link the chemicals to multiple health problems.

A Government Accountability Office report found that more than 400 military installations are contaminated with PFAS.

The Michigan lawmakers argue Congress appropriated the $60 million in December for the cleanup of PFOA and PFOS at decommissioned military bases but that those funds are not being used appropriately for Wurtsmith Air Force Base and K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base. Only $1.5 million and $4.5 million has been budgeted for each installation.

"We understand that the Air Force has dozens of former installations that require environmental remediation, however we urge you to utilize this additional funding provided by Congress to expedite PFOS and PFOA remediation at Wurtsmith and K.I. Sawyer," said the letter.

In a separate letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, New Mexico lawmakers asked the Pentagon to reimburse people there who paid for water filtration systems near Cannon Air Force Base. The lawmakers said PFAS contamination at dairy farms had been devastating.

"Due to the PFAS contamination, the commercial land value for all the neighboring dairies is next to nothing and the owners are struggling to make ends meet," according to the letter.

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich authored the letter with Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small.

"There is now an opportunity for leadership at the Department of Defense and the Air Force to not only do the right thing to address the negative impact it has had, but also increase the force protection standoff near critical infrastructure and runways that would directly benefit Cannon Air Force base," the lawmakers said.

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) similarly pressured the Air Force to release nearly $3 million for cleanup of a base in her district.

The money would go toward building a permanent filtration system for PFAS contaminants through a partnership between Horsham Air Guard Station and the Warminster Municipal Authority, Dean said in a statement.

"For years, we have been deeply concerned by the ongoing contamination flowing from the Willow Grove base and into our region's groundwater," Dean said.

The fiscal 2020 spending bill and the latest National Defense Authorization Act include PFAS provisions and funding. And Democrats this month approved a sweeping bill, H.R. 535, but they know its chances are limited at best in the Senate.

Still, Kildee noted that two dozen Republicans crossed the aisle to support the "PFAS Action Act." "That's not insignificant bipartisanship in this environment," Kildee said.

He said Democrats would look at other must-pass bills to attach PFAS provisions. "This is a chance for us to now use the 'PFAS Action' leverage with another vehicle, you know, spending bill or tax bill or something," he said.