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Report: Dangerous levels of 'forever chemicals' found at Great Lakes area military sites

Six military bases in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan's Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which sits on the coast of Lake St. Clair, have dangerously high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals present in their groundwater, according to a new report. Photo by Senior Airman Ryan Zeski/U.S. Air National Guard
Six military bases in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan's Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which sits on the coast of Lake St. Clair, have "dangerously" high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals present in their groundwater, according to a new report. Photo by Senior Airman Ryan Zeski/U.S. Air National Guard

Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Six military bases in the U.S. Great Lakes region have what an environmental group calls "dangerously" high levels of toxic chemicals called PFAS, according to a report published Tuesday.

Groundwater samples from the sites contained elevated amounts of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they accumulate over time and do not break down, the Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group said in its report.

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The affected sites include Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in New York, as well as Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center and Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan.

General Mitchell Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin and Duluth Air National Guard Base in Minnesota also had high levels of the chemicals in groundwater, according to Environmental Working Group.

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These sites, which are managed by the U.S. Department of Defense, have PFAS levels high enough to harm the waters of the lakes and potentially affect their fish population, the group said.

Humans exposed to these chemicals, either directly or through eating fish that have absorbed them, also could face significant health complications.

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"There are many sources of PFAS, but contaminated DoD sites have recorded some of the highest PFAS detections in the nation," said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

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"Fish harvested near these DoD sites could have higher levels of PFAS contamination," he said.

The contamination underscores the need for swift PFAS cleanup by the DoD, which used these chemicals "in firefighting foams for decades and and knew of their harms," the report said.

The findings are based on an analysis of DoD data on PFAS contamination at the affected sites.

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The data reveal levels of PFAS, including perfluorooctanoic, or PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, that range from 5,400 parts per trillion to 1.3 million parts per trillion in the groundwater at the six sites.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses a baseline level of 70 parts per trillion for areas that require remediation -- making the six locations' levels hundreds or thousands of times higher than those deemed acceptable.

Michigan's PFAS Action Response Team is aware of the contamination and is working with the DoD on remediation efforts, Scott Dean, strategic communications advisor for the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy told UPI in an email.

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"The focus is on protecting peoples drinking water and reducing or eliminating impacts on the environment," he said.

The PFAS Action Response Team in Michigan and the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin have both issued advisories warning against consumption of fish potentially exposed to PFAS.

A similar analysis conducted by the federal Government Accountability Office and released in June found evidence of PFAS contamination at 687 DoD-run sites.

Although the military has initiated investigations into the level of contamination or conducted remediation feasibility studies at more than 250 of these sites, clean-up efforts have yet to begin, according to GAO.

"DoD is generally focused on addressing PFAS in drinking water that exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory by, for example, providing bottled water or installing treatment systems," Elizabeth Field, director of the GAO's defense capabilities and management team, told UPI in an email.

"However, the department is still in the early phases of investigating PFAS contamination in other environmental media, [such as] groundwater and soil, and as of the end of fiscal year 2020 hadn't begun any long-term cleanup efforts at its installations," she said.

In June, Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee that of the 129 DoD installations assessed for PFAS at that time, 66 "are proceeding to the remedial investigation and feasibility study."

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The agency has committed to complete its investigation of PFAS contamination at bases and facilities by 2024.

"DoD has previously testified that PFAS pollution is a priority," the Environmental Working Group's Faber said.

However, "it could take many decades to clean legacy PFAS pollution in the groundwater and soil," he said.

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