The U.S. military is moving ahead with plans to collect and destroy unused firefighting foam that contains the hazardous chemicals PFOS and PFOA. But in trying to solve one environmental problem related to these persistent chemicals, which have caused massive drinking water contamination, the Defense Department may be creating another.
More than 3 million gallons of the foam and related waste have been retrieved from U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Army, and Air Force bases around the world. Now the question is what to do with them. Known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, it was originally created to put out jet fuel fires. AFFF is flame-resistant by design and contains PFAS chemicals, such as PFOA and PFOS, which cause a wide range of health problems and last indefinitely in the environment.
For decades, the military has been using AFFF to put out fires and to train military firefighters; that training involved spraying the foam onto blazes that were purposefully set in pits, many of which were unlined. From there, PFOS, PFOA, and other chemicals in their class seeped into groundwater in and around U.S. military bases at home and abroad.
Because of environmental concerns about the chemicals, which are associated with kidney cancer, testicular cancer, immune dysfunction, and many other health problems, the Air Force decided in 2016 to stop using foam that contained PFOA and PFOS, and began replacing the foam at installations worldwide. Unfortunately, as The Intercept reported last year, the new foam contains only slightly tweaked versions of the same problematic compounds, so it is likely to present many of the same health and environmental risks.
For the Air Force, the question of how best to dispose of the old foam comes too late. In January 2017, a waste disposal company hired by the Defense Department began incinerating more than 1 million gallons of the foam and AFFF-contaminated water that had been collected from Air Force bases around the country. According to the contract, the incineration was to be complete by this month.
But that leaves more than 2 million gallons of foam and contaminated water from other branches of the military, as well as unknown quantities possessed by nonmilitary airports and firefighters, which some states have recently begun to collect.
Although incineration is the military’s chosen disposal method, there has been little research on the safety of burning the foam. Two studies concluded that the incineration of PFAS chemicals would not be a source of further contamination, but both were funded by companies with a vested interest in making the problem go away. The first study was funded by DuPont, which used PFOA in the production of Teflon. The second was funded by 3M, which developed AFFF in partnership with the Navy in the 1960s and was the military’s exclusive supplier of AFFF for decades.
But some of the scant research on the topic suggests that incineration may not fully destroy PFAS. After PCBs were found in chicken eggs laid near an incinerator, a 2018 study determined that PFOA was released into the air by a municipal incinerator in the Netherlands. The author concluded that “modern incinerators cannot fully destroy” PFOA, PCBs, and other persistent chemicals.
The Air Force itself acknowledged in a 2017 document that the foam, which was designed to resist extremely high temperatures, is hard to burn and that “the high-temperature chemistry of PFOS and PFOA has not been characterized, so there is no precedent to predict products of pyrolysis or combustion, temperatures at which these will occur, or the extent of destruction that will be realized.”
Even more concerning, “environmentally unsatisfactory” byproducts may be created by incinerating the foam. Among the highly toxic byproducts of PFAS incineration are hydrofluoric acid, which burns human skin on contact; perfluoroisobutylene, a chemical that so reliably kills people within hours of being inhaled that it’s been used as a warfare agent; as well as dioxins and furans, which cause cancer.
Unfortunately, by the time the Air Force acknowledged the serious potential dangers of incinerating the firefighting foam, it had already burned much of its AFFF stockpile.
In November 2018, the Defense Department entered into two contracts with Tradebe, an Indiana-based company, to incinerate more than 1 million gallons of stockpiled foam that had been collected from the Army, Navy, National Guard, and Marine installations in Italy, Spain, Bahrain, Greece, Romania, Japan, Korea, Cuba, Djibouti, and the U.S. But that foam has yet to be incinerated, according to Edith Terolli, a Tradebe spokesperson.
The Defense Department “has issued no service orders to Tradebe under either of the contracts,” Terolli wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “If DLA [the Defense Logistics Agency] issues a service order, Tradebe can ensure that all management practices will be conducted in full compliance with and on the basis of established regulations. Tradebe’s priority is safety and the protection of people and the environment.”
According to the Defense Department’s Logistics Agency, the AFFF will be sent to five or six hazardous waste incinerators.
The track record of the hazardous waste incinerator that burned the Air Force’s AFFF stockpiles adds to the environmental concerns about its destruction. Located on the Ohio River, the Heritage Thermal Services hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, has a history of violating environmental laws.
Alonzo Spencer, a lifelong East Liverpool resident, co-founded a community group to prevent the incinerator’s construction in 1982. “We never wanted it here,” said Spencer. “We were worried about the emissions from the stack.”
After more than 25 years in which the incinerator has released pollution into the air over East Liverpool, the community’s fears turned out to be well-founded. “The concerns that we raised from the health side have come to fruition,” Spencer said recently. Environmental Protection Agency records show that the Heritage facility has emitted dangerous chemicals — including cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and PCBs — above safety levels.
A 2017 study showed that children in East Liverpool who had elevated levels of one of the neurotoxic pollutants in their air, manganese, had lower IQ scores. The area had elevated numbers of children in special education classes — 19 percent as opposed to 13 percent statewide.
In 2013, the East Liverpool incinerator exploded, setting off multiple fires and spewing toxic ash into the neighborhood, which has twice the national poverty rate. Even after the EPA sent Heritage a letter in 2015 detailing 195 violations the company had committed, the dangerous emissions continued. The EPA’s website, which publishes the quarterly regulatory status of incinerators for the previous three years, classifies the East Liverpool plant as a “high priority violator” of the Clean Air Act for each of the 12 quarters listed, which means that the facility may pose a “severe level of environmental threat.”
And according to an October consent decree between Heritage and the EPA, the East Liverpool incinerator “violated, and continues to violate” various emissions limits set under the Clean Air Act. The consent decree, which settled a civil complaint that the EPA filed against Heritage in October, required the company to pay a fine and take numerous steps to limit its air pollution.
Two of the violations in the complaint raise particular concerns for the combustion of AFFF. The Heritage facility emitted chemicals known as dioxins and furans, which can be produced while burning PFAS. And, perhaps most concerning, the incinerator in East Liverpool failed to maintain minimum temperatures specified in the incinerator’s permit “on numerous days beginning on or before January 6, 2011 and continuing thereafter,” according to the EPA complaint. The failure to reach minimum temperatures can result in incomplete combustion and the production of dangerous byproducts.
Asked why it awarded a contract to a facility that was a high-priority violator of the Clean Air Act, the Defense Logistics Agency provided a written response stating that “as part of our due diligence facility vetting processes, we validate facility compliance with the regulatory authorities,” and that environmental authorities in Ohio “did not find any violation of … laws or rules and/or violations of Heritage’s permit conditions.”
Heritage did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls requesting comment for this story.
Two incineration experts contacted by The Intercept said that PFAS could be burned safely as long as the incinerator maintains the proper temperature for the correct amount of time. While both experts offer slightly different minimum temperatures, they agree that precise control of conditions is essential — and that the quality and past conduct of the company carrying out the work is important.
“I would want to know that the facility has a good track record of good solid operation,” said Marco Castaldi from the City College of New York. Giving a massive amount of AFFF to a company that has a history of serious environmental violations, Castaldi said, “is like taking your car to a mechanic that fails to tighten the bolts on the tire.”
According to Roland Weber, a German chemist and expert in the incineration of PFAS and related chemicals, if the incinerator isn’t sufficiently hot, highly toxic compounds could form and be released during the large-scale incineration of PFAS. “It’s a question about these smaller molecules, which are highly volatile and you cannot catch with filters,” he said.
Others feel that not enough is known about incinerating AFFF to do it on a large scale, regardless of the facility. “There are too many data gaps to argue that burning is safe,” said Jen Duggan, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont. Duggan notes that there is no official protocol laying out how to burn the chemicals — and no way of checking on the process after it’s complete.
“Even if we did know what conditions are required to destroy PFAS, we don’t have monitoring at the stacks to make sure it’s being done properly,” said Duggan.
Because PFAS have yet to be regulated, it’s especially difficult to ensure their safe destruction. “Usually, with incineration, you have the threat of liability to motivate some level of compliance,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior toxics adviser for the Sierra Club.
With regulated chemicals, “you have protocols that require you to incinerate at certain temperatures. If you blow it, you violate your permit, which can result in EPA enforcement. And that can involve a fine,” said Lunder. “But PFAS are as regulated as Ivory soap.”
In November, concerns about a lack of protocols and the violations at Heritage’s East Liverpool incinerator helped stymie a plan to send firefighting foam collected in Vermont to the Ohio facility.
Vermont had collected some 2,500 gallons of AFFF from firehouses around the state that it was planning to send to the Heritage incinerator. The foam had already been loaded on a trailer when the state reversed its decision due to concerns about burning AFFF in general and at the Ohio facility in particular.
The unused foam has since been stored at a hazardous waste facility. According to Chuck Schwer, director of the Waste Management and Prevention Division at Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the AFFF will soon be shipped to a cement kiln incinerator that can burn it at a higher temperature.
Other states may soon start destroying their own foam too. Massachusetts began collecting unused AFFF in May. And in Ohio, the state fire marshal recently wrote to fire stations and encouraged them to collect their AFFF and send it to hazardous waste incinerators.
But environmental advocates are questioning what should happen with unused foam in states. “We don’t want it sent for incineration,” said Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future. The group is based in Washington state, where the Department of Ecology is seeking funding from the legislature to collect unused AFFF.
Even as questions about incineration persist, both the military and some states are moving fairly quickly to destroy their unused AFFF. In New York, where collection of the foam is ongoing, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation had already “properly disposed” of more than 25,000 gallons by last summer, according to the agency’s website. The department did not answer questions about exactly when, where, and how the AFFF was destroyed.
It’s understandable that people want to get rid of the toxic foam, but the sudden haste seems to be motivated by more than environmental concerns. Although PFAS chemicals are not currently regulated, this month three members of Congress from Michigan introduced the PFAS Action Act, a legislation that would classify the chemicals as hazardous substances and make polluters liable for their cleanup.
The Defense Department, which is responsible for hundreds of bases where AFFF has seeped into water, has been sued over the contamination and is engaged in a huge and costly effort to address the mess created by the foam. But because there are no binding safety levels for the chemicals, the Defense Department hasn’t had a clear legal obligation to clean up to any particular standard.
“We’re doing it because we’re good stewards and concerned citizens,” Maureen Sullivan, the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, told me about the U.S. military’s PFAS remediation work in a 2017 interview. “We have no requirement because it’s only an advisory.”
The PFAS Action Act, which would enable PFAS chemicals to be cleaned up through the Superfund program, would change that — and could potentially cost the military heavily.
“Everyone knows what’s coming and that DOD is trying to wiggle out of liability,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “That’s why they want it burned. If you bury it, that does not erase the liability. But if you burn it, you burn the liabilities along with the chemicals.”
A bipartisan task force formed in the House of Representatives last week to address PFAS-related issues will likely tackle disposal issues as it pushes for accountability for polluters, including the Defense Department. Meanwhile, environmentalists are asking for careful scrutiny from them and other lawmakers before any more AFFF is burned.
“We need to pause and take a deep breath until we know that burning AFFF is safe and that we’re not putting others in harm’s way,” said Duggan of the Conservation Law Foundation. “If you ship foam to another community and incinerate it without complete destruction, you’ve just turned it into another public health risk.”