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Persistent Pollutants

Groups sue US military to stop PFAS incineration

Activists say contracts with companies violate federal law

by Cheryl Hogue
February 25, 2020

20200225lnp3-burner.jpg
Credit: Center for Land Use Interpretation/Creative Commons
This incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, burns PFAS-containing material under contract with the US Department of Defense. It is about 1.8 km from two of the city's schools.

Environmental groups are asking a federal court to halt incineration of the US military’s per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at commercial facilities.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has used firefighting foams containing PFAS since the 1970s. In water-based foams used to douse liquid-fuel fires, PFAS allows the foams to flow better over the fuel and extinguish the fire faster.

PFAS are extremely stable and environmentally persistent, and the handful of non-polymeric molecules tested so far are toxic. The military is potentially liable for the cleanup of drinking water tainted with PFAS from firefighting foam used at hundreds of sites across the US.

During the past 2 years, the DOD awarded contracts to waste-handling companies to incinerate its stockpiles of unused PFAS-containing foams. But in their lawsuit, the environmental groups argue that the contracts violate federal law in part because the DOD failed to conduct environmental reviews of the incineration facilities.

In addition, a federal law enacted in December lays out broad performance requirements for incineration of the military’s PFAS, the groups say. That law requires the DOD to ensure that materials are burned at high enough temperatures to break down the compounds and emit as little PFAS from the incinerator as possible.

Even after the new law took effect, the DOD continued its incineration contracts without specifying the temperatures needed to destroy PFAS and without ensuring that the incinerators attain those temperatures, the environmental groups allege. What’s more, the organizations say, the department is “not currently able to reliably measure, much less minimize, PFAS emissions” from incineration of its firefighting foam.

A lack of data about PFAS incineration raises questions about whether the compounds are completely broken down or whether incineration leads to smaller PFAS that are released to the environment, scientists say.

The nine facilities the DOD contracts for PFAS incineration are in Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and Texas. All have a history of environmental violations, the environmental groups say. Several are in minority or poor neighborhoods, they add.

The DOD has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

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