Senators seek urgency from Defense Department on PFAS chemical exposure

By: - September 22, 2022 1:52 pm

U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, welcome Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III as he arrives at Peterson Space Force Base, May 24, 2022. Austin visited the U.S. Air Force Academy to deliver the keynote address at the graduation ceremony on May 25, 2022. (Paul Honnick/U.S. Space Force)

A bipartisan group of 40 U.S. senators including Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado wrote to the Department of Defense asking officials to address toxic chemical exposure at military installations. 

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS substances, are synthetic chemicals found in firefighting foam, among other products. The chemicals are notoriously persistent and cannot be removed from drinking water by boiling, earning the nickname “forever chemicals.” 


PFAS contamination emerged as an issue in Colorado in 2015, when the Widefield, Fountain and Security communities in El Paso County detected levels of contamination in drinking water well above federal limits, Newsline previously reported. The chemicals have been linked to firefighting foam use at Peterson Space Force Base for petroleum fires that cannot be put out by water alone. 

The letter, directed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, notes that nearly 700 military installations across the country have known or suspected contamination to the toxic chemicals, and it asks the DOD to prioritize PFAS testing and remediation because of how much funding Congress has committed to the issue. According to a news release from Hickenlooper’s office, Congress has increased its funding on the matter by $1 billion over the past six years. This includes $517 million from the National Defense Authorization Act specifically targeted at PFAS-related activities for the 2022 fiscal year. 

PFAS substances have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol, fertility problems and developmental delays. Besides firefighting foam, the chemicals are also found in certain nonstick and waterproof products, including cookware, food packaging and fabrics.

“These health concerns pose a significant hazard to the safety of our communities, and individuals either previously or currently exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals, underscoring the urgency of reducing exposure,” the letter reads. “We are, however, concerned that DoD has failed to adequately prepare for additional funding being made available. It is our understanding that one of the major obstacles in the way of Congress putting more resources toward this problem is a lack of planning by the Department adequately developing the appropriate plans to utilize higher funding levels as provided by Congress.”

The letter emphasizes the department’s “responsibility to place greater emphasis” on addressing PFAS contamination as it impacts service members, military families and communities. The group of senators wants the department to put a much emphasis on the issue as Congress has with its funding commitments. 

Other asks of the department include specific PFAS-related plans, policies and programs, while also addressing deficiencies in past planning the department “has claimed limits their ability to execute higher levels of funding.” The senators also want a plan provided to Congress “no later than upon the release of the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024 on how the Department is prepared to execute increased funding levels for PFAS-related activities.” 

Bennet and Hickenlooper asked for additional help from the U.S. Air Force earlier this year after PFAS substances were found in the Widefield aquifer in El Paso County that provides drinking water to thousands of people in surrounding communities, as well as surface water for area ponds.


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Lindsey Toomer
Lindsey Toomer

Lindsey Toomer covers politics, social justice and other stories for Newsline. She formerly reported on city government at the Denver Gazette and on Colorado mountain town government, education and environment at the Summit Daily News.