The EPA’s latest chemical cleanup plan may spark a war with an adversary that knows a thing or two about combat: the Department of Defense.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Feb. 14 that it will pursue tighter, federally enforceable regulations on a pair of toxic firefighting foam chemicals that have caused environmental problems on numerous military bases across the country.
The Pentagon could see billions in cleanup bills over the next several decades depending on how stringently the EPA chooses to regulate the two chemicals: PFOA and PFOS.
The chemicals are part of a broader family of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that were produced for years by 3M, DowDuPont Inc., and other chemical makers and used in nonstick coatings and firefighting foams.
They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they’re extremely slow to break down in the environment, building up in drinking water aquifers and ultimately the human body, causing thyroid disorders and even cancer.
The severity of the health effects and the high costs for cleanup mean the two agencies could be on a collision course.
The EPA is under pressure to set tighter standards as the chemicals are increasingly found in drinking water supplies nationwide, while the Pentagon worries that could push its environmental cleanup budget deep into the red.
“There have been some epic battles between EPA and DOD in the past,” said Bernadette Rappold, an attorney with the firm Greenberg Traurig LLP who specializes in environmental cleanup issues. “It’s not unprecedented.”
Foams containing PFAS are the military’s most effective tools to put out fires.
For years, trainees sprayed firefighting foam that contained these chemicals on military bases, where they would seep into the ground and into aquifers.
Some alternatives have been developed, but many have their own toxicity problems or simply can’t satisfy the Pentagon’s high standards.
“In a lot of cases, they used quite a lot of this,” Rappold, who previously worked at the EPA on issues at federal properties, told Bloomberg Environment. “You’re training people to put fires out on aircraft carriers or other vessels. If you don’t put that fire out, everybody dies.”
But while PFAS chemicals might be good for firefighting, they’re bad for the Pentagon’s long-term finances.
Cleaning up PFAS contamination could cost the Defense Department approximately $2 billion, according to 2017 remarks from Maureen Sullivan, the Pentagon’s top official overseeing environmental issues on bases.
That’s slightly more than it spends each year on all other environmental contaminants, according to a 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office.
Unlike a corporation facing the costs of its legacy pollution, the Pentagon has tremendous influence over the EPA’s regulatory process simply because it’s also a federal agency—and the largest one.
Even though the EPA is likely years away from finalizing a new drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, potential conflicts between the two agencies are already beginning to emerge.
The EPA has developed an interim set of guidelines for how to remove these chemicals out of water and sent them in August 2018 to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for interagency review, typically the final step before federal policies go public (RIN:2050-ZA15).
These guidelines have stalled at OMB and multiple former EPA staffers told Bloomberg Environment the reason for the delay is likely the Pentagon’s objections.
Judith Enck, a former regional chief at the EPA, said the Pentagon obstructed efforts to deal with this problem even during the Obama administration.
She said the military sees itself as being able to outlast any particular agency or even presidency that opposes it.
“DOD fights EPA on everything and they are formidable because they don’t listen to anyone,” said Enck, a senior adviser at Bennington College’s Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “They treat the White House like holiday help.”
Both the Defense Department and the EPA declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing interagency review.
War With the States
The EPA’s Feb. 14 action plan committed the agency to deciding before the end of the year whether to set a enforceable limit on the amount of PFOA and PFOS that can exist in water.
Currently, the agency has only set a nonbinding advisory standard of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS.
This new regulation would apply to all water utilities across the country, and would also dictate the lengths a company or a federal agency must go to clean up a polluted water source.
In the absence of binding federal standards, several states have issued their own regulations that are often set at levels far below the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion recommendation.
The Pentagon has already shown that it’s willing to fight those efforts as well.
Though the Pentagon is a formidable opponent, the EPA may have the ultimate weapon in its arsenal: the law.
Ridge Hall, a retired Superfund attorney who now works with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said that environmental cleanup law was written to give the EPA the final say in most of these types of interagency disputes—but not in all.
“EPA is the final referee,” Hall said. But “sometimes it’s conceivable that DOD, just through sheer muscle power in the federal government, wins out on that.”
—With assistance from Brenna Goth and Emily C. Dooley.
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