Military Bases Show High Levels of PFAS Contamination


Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd

The drinking water crisis at the Pease Air Force Base resurfaced during the 2018 PFAS National Leadership Summit and Engagement. Representatives from the state of New Hampshire brought pressing questions and concerns to the EPA headquarters here in Washington, D.C. Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have been flooding newspaper headlines this past year. This class of chemicals was historically used in food packaging, Teflon, Scotchgard, firefighting foam, and is now present in many drinking water sources in the United States.

PFAS Contamination in Groundwater 

Major news headlines calling attention to Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have been appearing all over the country. PFAS contamination has invaded waterways and drinking water sources all the way from the west coast to Maine. The Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire has been in the public eye ever since it was designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site in 1991. Public and private wells surrounding the Air Force Base have been drawing drinking water from these wells for decades. Since the closure of the active Air Force Base, invested parties have been trying to figure out ways to redevelop this area, which is how the Pease International Tradeport came to be.

Functional Superfund Site?

Pease International Tradeport is home to businesses, shopping centers and several daycares. Many people have commended developers on their ability to convert this former military base into a functional business area. Prior to development of the new shopping center, Pease was an active Air Force Base from the early 1930s until its closure in 1991. Throughout those 60 years, Pease was home to six solid waste landfills, three spill sites, two firefighting training areas, a solvent disposal site, munition residual burial site, and a sledge disposal site. To be quite frank, Pease was a dumping ground for various types of military waste including PFAS. Even as of recent, developers built daycares that drew drinking water directly from contaminated areas. In 2014, the city of Portsmouth shut down a major municipal-owned well due to high levels of PFAS contamination. There is reasonable evidence that the source of the PFAS contamination was from the formerly active Pease Air Force Base. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a class of PFAS that has historically been used as an ingredient in firefighting foam. Air Force bases typically use large quantities of firefighting foam for training exercises. PFOA is being phased out of the market, but it has proved to be a challenging task to find an effective alternative. The Pease Air Force Base is now a designated Superfund site and is required to meet the criteria of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This project is sweeping in scope because of the size of the military base and the duration that it was in operation. 

Is Groundwater Contamination Common on Military Bases?

Contaminated groundwater is a common occurrence in both active and inactive military bases, many of which are Superfund sites. Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina has 26 designated clean-up areas. McClellan Air Force Base in California has 326 waste areas of both known and suspected contamination. In fact, more than two-thirds of all designated Superfund sites are military bases. This type of groundwater contamination ranges from PFAS, to benzene, to lead, to trichloroethylene and many other harmful carcinogens. Because of the high level of uncertainty and potentially affected parties, EPA representatives announced at the summit that Portsmouth, New Hampshire would likely be the first stop on their nationwide PFAS tour.

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