Mark Favors, second from left, submitted written testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment. He spoke with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-New York, center, about the effects of PFAS contamination on his family. Also pictured, from left: Chet Whye, Hope Grosse and Loreen Hackett.
An Army veteran who grew up near Peterson Air Force Base was among those in attendance at a House subcommittee hearing March 6 on Capitol Hill. The subject: PFASs, a toxic group of chemicals found in household products and military firefighting foam, and their effects on health and the environment.
Lawmakers questioned representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense while holding up the stories of those — including former Fountain resident Mark Favors — who have been personally affected by the military's decades-long use of the chemicals. PFASs, which researchers have linked to low birth weights, liver and kidney cancer, and thyroid problems, leached into the drinking water supply in areas surrounding hundreds of military installations around the world.
"Mark Favors is a U.S. Army veteran who had 16 family members, 16 family members, diagnosed with cancer, all of whom lived next to the Peterson Air Force Base in Fountain, Colorado," Rep. Harley Rouda, D-California, chair of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, said in his opening remarks. "Several of those family members are also veterans."
The Department of Defense has taken some actions to address PFASs, including implementing a new type of firefighting foam that it says is safer for public health and the environment. And on Feb. 14, the Environmental Protection Agency revealed its long-awaited PFAS action plan, announcing it would start the process for setting a maximum contaminant level (MCL) under the Safe Drinking Water Act for two chemicals in the PFAS group, PFOA and PFOS.
But for many lawmakers and advocates, the steps outlined in the plan weren't enough to address the problem, and to hold the Department of Defense accountable for contamination of communities. (Read more on the plan here.)
And Congress is bringing on the pressure.
The same day as the subcommittee hearing, a group of senators signed a letter demanding copies of communications between the EPA, Department of Defense, Office of Management and Budget, and Department of Health and Human Services regarding the PFAS Action Plan and groundwater cleanup guidelines.
And Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennet (D) were among a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce a bill on March 1 that would require the EPA to designate PFASs as hazardous substances, making polluters responsible for funding cleanup. (An identical bill was introduced in the House in January.)
At the subcommittee hearing, Rep. Katie Hill, D-California, began her question for Dave Ross, the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Water, by saying she had been born on an Air Force base where high concentrations of PFAS chemicals had been detected. She asked Ross whether he, like embattled former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, would call PFAS contamination a "national emergency."
"We do believe it is a major national issue for EPA and our federal partners to address," Ross said, citing the agency's successful effort to get manufacturers to voluntarily pull products containing PFOA and PFOS off the market.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, told the story of a woman who grew up in Warminster, Pennsylvania near the Naval Air Warfare Center.
"[Hope] Grosse was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 25 years old," Ocasio-Cortez said. "Ms. Grosse's father died of cancer at 52 years of age, and her sister suffered from ovarian cysts, lupus, fibromyalgia and abdominal aneurysms. She worries that she has unwittingly exposed her own children to [PFAS] chemicals as well... Mr. Ross, do you believe that the EPA should further regulate these chemicals?"
"Yes, and that’s what we’ve stated in our action plan," Ross replied. "We have a robust plan to regulate these chemicals across a wide variety of our programs."
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, asked whether the Department of Defense knew how many active service members, veterans and their families had had been exposed to the chemicals.
"Our health affairs staff is going to be conducting a health study and creating an inventory of those service members that have been exposed through drinking water or occupational exposure and work in coordination with the Veterans Administration to share that information," replied Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment.
The hearing was held the same day that Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, released an updated map with information on 106 military sites where drinking water or groundwater is contaminated with PFASs. (The Department of the Defense has said that there are 401 sites in the U.S. alone with known or suspected contamination.)
The group also released a report with several recommendations for Congress and President Donald Trump's administration.
While the problem of PFAS contamination has persisted for decades without major enforcement actions by the federal government, Congress's renewed interest could move the needle on the issue, says Melanie Benesh, Environmental Working Group's legislative attorney.
"I think Congress will continue to push the [EPA] and do everything that they’re doing now —introducing bills, holding oversight hearings — and I think the states have an important role to play," Benesh says. "State policy tends to move federal policy and tends to move marketplace actions... And then there’s a whole grassroots network of people who have been affected by these chemicals, particularly veterans and military families, and those voices really matter."
Peterson Air Force Base replaced the old firefighting foam in all of its emergency response vehicles in 2016, a spokesperson said. The new, supposedly safer formula is only used in emergencies, and not during training.
Water districts surrounding the base have changed water sources or filtration systems since evidence of contamination began to emerge in 2015.
But the spread of PFASs in drinking water left lasting effects that should have been addressed by the state, Favors argues.
"Despite having a budget surplus in 2018 of over $1.1 billion, the state of Colorado still has not
conducted a formal investigation on the scope of the PFAS contamination, conducted PFAS
blood level tests of our affected children, nor passed legally enforceable MCLs of PFAS in
drinking water," Favors, now a New York resident, wrote in his testimony to Congress.
Favors goes on to list the 10 blood relatives and in-laws he has lost to cancer, all of whom lived for years near Peterson Air Force Base.