Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, arrives for a Democratic policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Angus King and 39 other U.S. senators are calling on the military to act with more urgency to tackle widespread contamination from forever chemicals, saying it must do more to prioritize plans for cleaning up its sites with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Nearly 700 military installations across the country, including several in Maine, have known or suspected PFAS contamination, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Over the past six years, Congress has increased funding by $1 billion for the Defense Department to accelerate PFAS testing and remediation, more than doubling the amount requested, according to the senators. This includes $517 million for PFAS-related work for the 2022 fiscal year.

“We are, however, concerned that DoD has failed to adequately prepare for additional funding being made available,” the bipartisan group of 40 senators wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Simply put, DoD is not sufficiently prioritizing PFAS testing, remediation and disposal as part of its annual budget process, nor is the Department adequately developing the appropriate plans to utilize even higher funding levels as provided by Congress.”

The chemicals, which are present in high concentrations in the firefighting foam used during training activities on military bases, can seep into groundwater and then nearby private wells or other water sources contributing to public water systems. They are associated with kidney cancer, decreased infant and fetal growth, decreased immunity, thyroid disease and other serious illnesses.

At the end of fiscal year 2020, the Defense Department had taken steps to address PFAS contamination in drinking water at or near 58 installations, according to the GAO, which described the military as being “in the early phases of investigating PFAS.” At these sites, where people may live on or near military property, the military has provided bottled water, installed drinking water treatment systems, or connected homes with wells to municipal water, the GAO said.

One of those installations was the U.S. Navy’s telecommunications center in Cutler, where the chemicals were discovered in groundwater at levels greater than a federal advisory level at the time, according to a 2017 report. When the chemicals spread into nearby wells, the Navy gave households bottled water for drinking and cooking, according to the Ellsworth American.

At other places in Maine, the military is still examining the extent of known contamination. It is currently investigating where the chemicals ended up at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, for example, and the Maine Air National Guard’s base at the Bangor International Airport.

Long-term cleanup nationwide could take decades to complete, according to the Defense Department.

The Defense Department “should act on the planned remediation efforts instead of continued studies,” King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a statement. It should also report on how it is prioritizing the purchase of PFAS-free products, do a long-time study on the health implications of PFAS exposure, and test service members and families stationed at locations with PFAS contamination, he said.

King has specifically sought information about the military’s remediation work at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now the Brunswick Executive Airport, where PFAS-contaminated groundwater is being extracted and treated with an activated carbon system.

In January, the Navy provided a list of actions it has taken and said a study to evaluate its progress is expected in 2023. But people in the area have still expressed  concern about PFAS contaminating the coastline.

As for the use of firefighting foam, the Defense Department has said it will unveil plans by the end of January for a PFAS-free version for use at all military installations. By October 2024 it plans to ban the use of the PFAS-filled foam entirely, though sites will be allowed to apply for extensions to continue using it.

The federal government’s environmental liability — what it is likely to spend in the future to clean up environmental messes — has been growing for the past 20 years. That growth is likely to only continue as it spends billions cleaning up PFAS contamination, according to the GAO.

The senators requested that the Defense Department provide a plan to Congress about how it will spend increased funding for PFAS mitigation, including for PFAS destruction. The department has not reported future PFAS cost estimates in its annual environmental reports to Congress, according to the GAO.

“Our service members, military families, veterans and defense communities deserve the Department’s full attention to appropriately address the scope and severity of PFAS contamination,” the senators wrote.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins did not sign the letter. When asked why, a spokesperson for her office said the Defense Department had recently provided an update on its PFAS remediation efforts at current and former military installations, including those in Maine.

What’s more, in January, Collins will become the lead Republican on the U.S. Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, which oversees the defense budget.

“As part of her work in that important position, she will continue to ensure DOD receives the funding necessary to remediate PFAS contamination at our military installations,” her spokesperson said.

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...