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The Defense Department will investigate U.S. sites for PFAS contamination

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now - the Department of Defense is testing hundreds of military sites across this country for contamination from chemicals. They're known by the acronym PFAS - PFAS. They're used in many products, and they're called forever chemicals because they do not break down easily. Some are linked with health problems, including cancer. Here's Jay Price of WUNC.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: This is Bogue Field, little more than a collection of concrete airstrips on the mainland behind one of North Carolina's barrier islands. Normally, Marine pilots use it for practice. Today, though, the straining motor belongs to a drilling rig rather than a fighter jet. Military firefighters also use this field for practice, and the military thinks they may have released fire-suppressing foam here, which contained one kind of PFAS. That's why a team of contract technicians and geologists is drilling 23 test wells at key spots around the runways.

KRISTI FRANCISCO: And then the well will sit approximately two weeks, and they'll come back and collect a sample.

PRICE: Kristi Francisco oversees the effort. She's with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk.

FRANCISCO: And then once we get that data, then we'll evaluate whether we need to come back and collect additional samples or whether we need to move the investigation on.

PRICE: The Navy will use the soil and water samples from the holes to figure out whether there needs to be a cleanup and if so, how to do it. It has to. The military has been evaluating PFAS pollution at nearly 700 sites, and Congress just mandated it finish the task by the end of next year. It also has to report back with a timetable for the cleanup. The military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its PFAS efforts, and the new defense spending bill earmarks another $517 million. Richard Kidd is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience.

RICHARD KIDD: My congressional testimony has been this problem will take years to define and decades to clean up.

PRICE: Of the hundreds of sites on the evaluation list, 11 are in North Carolina. Those include the major bases, National Guard installations, an ammunition shipping depot and a former missile factory. And those installations include more than 50 individual places where firefighting foam was believed to have been used or stored. The cleanup, Kidd says, will be a long process.

KIDD: So is there a better, faster way to do this? The Department of Defense is spending a lot of money to try to find that out.

PRICE: That cleanup phase hasn't really started, though in some other states, the pollution was so obvious that the Pentagon has already installed systems to pump up groundwater, clean it and put it back in the ground. Critics of the Defense Department say it should be doing more faster. Colin O'Neil is with the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.

COLIN O'NEIL: Department of Defense employees testified last year that at the current pace, it could take 30 years or longer to clean up PFAS at military installations across the country, which, for the defense communities and military families who live on or near these installations, is just simply unacceptable.

PRICE: But the military says it has to follow the existing science and regulations, which with PFAS are still works in progress. In 2016, the EPA set stricter guidelines for PFAS in drinking water, and the Pentagon began testing at hundreds of its installations and adjacent areas. By 2018, it had found potentially dangerous levels of the chemical in at least 126 locations. Again, defense official Richard Kidd.

KIDD: And then if we found PFAS in those water systems, we immediately put on a filter. And so we are taking the PFAS out of those systems.

PRICE: Kidd says there's a crucial point to understand for those living on or near installations like Bogue Field.

KIDD: To the Department of Defense's knowledge, no one in America, on or off installations, is drinking water that has PFAS in it above EPA's established levels that was caused by the Department of Defense.

PRICE: The Pentagon's battle with PFAS is only part of the Biden administration's efforts to investigate and clean up the chemicals, reduce their use and learn more about their health effects. And the civilian side of the problem is potentially much larger than the military's, which is far from small. At Bogue Field, Kristi Francisco, the Navy project manager, says the crew will be drilling and taking soil samples for a couple of weeks before moving on.

FRANCISCO: It's a lot of work, yeah.

PRICE: With decades more ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Cape Carteret, North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.