Congressman Kelly Armstrong Questions Defense and EPA Officials on Water Contamination on Military Bases and Farmland

March 7, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Congressman Kelly Armstrong questioned experts from the Department of Defense and Environmental Protection Agency in a congressional hearing to examine the federal government’s response to potential drinking water contamination on military installations.

Armstrong asked the DOD official about the response to an EPA advisory that drinking water on military bases could be contaminated by a chemical in firefighting foam primarily used by the military to combat aircraft fuel fires. The EPA in 2016 issued a lifetime health advisory on substances containing per- and polufluoroalkyl, otherwise known as PFAS, in drinking water.

Armstrong also questioned the witnesses, who appeared Wednesday before the Environment Subcommittee of the Oversight and Reform Committee, about their inter-agency work with the Department of Agriculture to ensure that farmland near military bases is not also affected.

Armstrong requested more information on this issue for the military installations in North Dakota. The witness indicated the DOD would provide that information at a later date, and Armstrong looks forward to reviewing that data.

Witnesses included:

Ms. Maureen Sullivan
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment
U.S. Department of Defense

Mr. Dave Ross
Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Click here to watch Armstrong’s full remarks.

Excerpts of Armstrong’s Questioning:

On steps the Department of Defense takes after learning of a drinking water contamination issue:

Congressman Armstrong: “When DOD learns of water contamination issue above the lifetime ban, what are the immediate steps that go into place to protect the drinking water on the base?”

Ms. Sullivan: “We […] directed everywhere where we are the purveyor of drinking water worldwide, there are 524 systems we operate, to immediately test using EPA’s test method. If there was above the lifetime health advisory, to immediately provide alternative drinking water. All of that occurred over the summer of 2016.

“For those installations where we buy water from the local community, we ask the military installations to work with the local purveyor to see if they would voluntarily adopt the EPA’s lifetime health advisory in the water that we’re buying from them for our installations. By the end of that summer of 2016, no one on a military base was drinking water above the lifetime health advisory.”

On the military’s current use of the firefighting foam in training:

Congressman Armstrong: “When the military conducts training exercises does it use AFFF products?”

Ms. Sullivan: “In January 2016, which was before EPA issued their lifetime health advisory, we actually instructed people to stop using it in training and testing. They use for the most part water for that. When they actually have to use it to fight a fire, that they contain it to make sure that it doesn’t get into the groundwater. We’re not requiring the use of it as part of testing and training and maintenance in the day-to-day activities, except for shipboard.”

On if the military has seen any reduction in the groundwater contamination after the use of the firefighting foam in training ended:

Congressman Armstrong: “Have you done any testing since and has the Department seen any reduction in these chemicals in either your water supplies or surrounding water supplies since you made that change?”

Ms. Sullivan: “I have not tracked that information because the groundwater situation most of it is so long term that this is an evolving issue. Right now, we’re trying to determine the extent of the presence in groundwater around our bases. How far it is, where it’s flowing, so we can design the right system to contain it now that we’ve cut off human exposure through drinking water.”

On how the military and the EPA is working with USDA to prevent contamination of farmland:

Congressman Armstrong: “How are we working with Department of Agriculture to make sure that we’re not mitigating into surrounding farmland or cropland?”

Mr. Ross: “I’ve actually talked to USDA because there’s a dairy situation out in New Mexico. I talked to USDA within the last couple weeks getting more information about that. The [EPA] administrator just last week issued a memo directing the Office of Research and Development - as part of our action plan we have a very robust research component - to specifically take a look at the cross-section between groundwater contamination and agriculture use. We’ll be setting up meetings with USDA, FDA and our research staff to work that very issue the administrator issued the memo last week.”

Ms. Sullivan: “I would add to that we believe this is a nationwide problem that does need a whole of government solution. So we would encourage USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to get engaged.”

Additional Information

For more information about the hearing, please visit the Oversight and Reform Committee’s website here.

Hearing Purpose as provided by Oversight and Committee Reform Committee Majority Staff:

  • PFAS chemicals have been used in a variety of household and industry products for decades in the United States, including fire-fighting foams used by the Department of Defense (DOD). PFAS chemicals are currently unregulated by the federal government. The hearing will examine: (1) the health effects associated with PFAS exposure, which include decreased fertility, birth defects, liver disease, and increased risk for thyroid disease and cancer; (2) efforts by DOD to minimize exposure in and around military communities; and (3) the Environmental Protection Agency's recently released action plan regarding these substances.