This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
VICTORVILLE, CA - Once a fighter jet training base critical to the Cold War, little remains of the former George Air Force Base but rows of dilapidated houses, a dismantled military hospital and dangerous chemicals from pesticides, jet fuels and other hazardous wastes that have poisoned the water for decades.
“Now when I see the base today, areas of it look like a war zone,” said Frank Vera, an Air Force veteran stationed on the base in the early 1970s. “I don’t think people know what to do with some of these areas because they are so contaminated.”
George is among at least 400 active and closed military installations nationwide where the use of toxic chemicals has contaminated or is suspected of contaminating water on bases and nearby communities with chemicals ranging from cleaning solvents and paints to explosives and firefighting foam, according to a News21 investigation.
At 149 current and former U.S. military bases, the contamination is so severe that they have been designated Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning they are among the most hazardous areas in the country requiring cleanup.
One of those installations, Hill Air Force Base just north of Salt Lake City, is both one of the state’s largest employers, with 21,000 employees, and a Superfund site. Since 1987, the EPA has been monitoring the base, where more than 60 chemicals were found in soil and groundwater. According to EPA records, an “unsafe level of contamination” still exists on some areas of the base.
“Even though the DOD has made significant strides in identifying and investigating the level of contamination at domestic base sites, the pace of actual cleanup has been quite slow,” according to a research study from the Berkeley School of Law. “As the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) recently found, ‘most of the time and money has been spent studying the problem.’”
According to a 2017 GAO report, the Department of Defense already has spent $11.5 billion on evaluations and environmental cleanup of closed bases, and it estimates $3.4 billion more will be needed.
In March, the DOD said it would be testing the water at 395 active and closed bases across the country to determine whether perfluorinated compounds are contaminating the drinking water on bases and in communities around them.
Originally developed by corporate giants 3M and DuPont for use in consumer products like Teflon, Scotchgard and stain-proof clothing, these chemicals, known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), were used by the DOD since the 1970s in firefighting foam to extinguish jet fuel fires.
In 2012, the EPA added PFAS to its list of unregulated contaminants that may be hazardous to human health, though records indicate the Pentagon knew of the hazards decades earlier. In 1981, the Air Force Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory conducted studies that found that exposure to earlier variations of PFAS were harmful in female rats and caused behavioral changes in offspring.
The Air Force started replacing the original firefighting foam with a “new, environmentally responsible firefighting foam” in August 2016.
Because the chemicals don’t break down easily, communities still are finding them in their drinking water. For example, in May, residents in Airway Heights, Washington, were instructed not to drink their tap water after elevated levels of PFAS were found in drinking water wells on and around the active Fairchild Air Force Base.
“I think it’s crazy that pretty much the whole time I’ve lived out here, approximately 12 years, I’ve been drinking bad water,” said Martha Grall, an Airway Heights resident. “Because they didn’t feel like sharing that information years ago, I have no faith in believing anything they have to say now when they try and tell us it’s safe now.”
Though the Air Force started treating the water, Grall said, “As far as trusting the tap water, I don’t think I ever will.”
Fairchild is one of more than 30 bases where PFAS contamination was discovered this year. In 2015, the DOD reported to the GAO that “the cost of cleaning up perfluorinated compounds will likely be significant.” The Air Force had budgeted $100 million over a five-year period for the investigation and remediation of the chemical. However, the Air Force has already spent more than $150 million as of June 2017.
As of August, the DOD had yet to complete testing for PFAS at more than 200 bases.
“There are lots of places where this is a problem,” said Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan. “And there are lots of places where it’s a problem, and the people don’t even know it yet.”
“The biggest concern right now is that the Air Force hasn’t had any sense of urgency,” he said. They ought to be leading the effort to solve this problem. To find people who might have been affected, and to provide whatever relief is appropriate.”
But U.S. Navy Commander Patrick Evans, a Pentagon spokesman, told News21 in a statement, “We take this matter very seriously and pledge an unshakable commitment to protecting human health and the environment.”