Military bases near Chesapeake Bay contaminated with forever chemicals, new report warns
Nine military bases near the Chesapeake Bay are contaminated with "forever chemicals" from firefighting foams used by the Defense Department, an environmental advocacy group warned this week.
The new report from the Environmental Working Group, citing tens of thousands of pages of records obtained from the Defense Department, said that the biggest risk is that the chemicals might have flowed out of the groundwater at military sites in Maryland and Virginia and into the Chesapeake, contaminating the region's wildlife - including its famed shellfish - affecting the food chain and possibly sickening people.
Known as PFAS, the group of man-made chemicals has been around since the 1940s and is found in hundreds of everyday products, including pizza boxes, nonstick cookware, stain-repellent fabric and cleaning products. They do not break down in the environment and can slowly accumulate in the human body, which research has shown could be linked to an increased risk of cancer and birth defects, among other ailments.
The chemicals are also present in "aqueous film-forming foam" that the Defense Department first developed in the 1960s to quickly put out jet-fuel fires, during training exercises and in actual blazes.
When asked to comment on the report, a spokesman for the Defense Department offered links to two websites with news releases about the department's efforts to clean up the chemicals, its outreach and restoration efforts, and how the "national issue" needed "national solutions."
Beyond that, the spokesman said in an email, "we have nothing further to provide."
The nine affected sites include Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md., the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., which had the highest concentration of chemicals in its groundwater, at 2.2 million parts per trillion. (The Environmental Protection Agency has said that such chemicals should be at or below 70 parts per trillion in clean drinking water).
Also on the list was Blossom Point, the Martin State air facility, Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Chesapeake Bay Detachment in Maryland, along with Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va., and Naval Weapons Station Yorktown.
An additional seven military sites may also be affected, the report said, though the Defense Department has not yet done testing to confirm the presence of "forever chemicals" in those places. Those are the Navy recreation center in Solomons, Md.; the Weide Army Heliport in Edgewood, Md.; Naval Training Center Bainbridge in Port Deposit, Md.; Fort Monroe in Virginia; the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach; the Williamsburg Fleet and Industrial Supply Center; and the Craney Island naval fuel depot in Portsmouth, Va.
Scott Faber, senior vice president at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, best known for its guides to sunscreens and produce, said it is unclear whether the crabs, oysters and fish being harvested from affected areas contain high levels of contamination, but he said a "limited sampling" has left his group feeling that there are "reasons to be worried."
The third-largest estuary in the world, the Chesapeake Bay encompasses about 64,000 square miles, and its watershed spans parts of six states. The chemicals have long posed a challenge to the bay's health. In a 2020 study, PFAS chemicals were found in crab and oysters from St. Inigoes Creek in Maryland and in striped bass in the Potomac River.
Faber said that people who catch or consume shellfish near the nine spots listed in the report should take precautions.
"Limit your consumption of oysters and crabs from areas near those places," Faber said. "Don't eat a lot of them that are harvested offshore from these places."
And while the Food and Drug Administration has not set consumption thresholds for "forever chemicals" in seafood - nor has Maryland or Virginia - the European Food Safety Authority has set a limit of 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of weight. That's the equivalent of a 160-pound person eating a portion of an oyster.
Other states, including Alabama, Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin, have begun issuing fish advisories for seafood known to have elevated levels of the chemicals.
The Defense Department formed a task force in July 2019 to figure out what to do about "forever chemicals." By late March of this year, the department had compiled a list of 698 military installations across the country that had probably used or released the firefighting foam, now known to be hazardous. Of those places, 129 have finished a preliminary assessment, with 63 sites being given a clean bill of health and 66 requiring a more detailed investigation.
At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in late May, Richard Kidd - the Defense Department's deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy resilience - said that the department had a "mature" cleanup program but that efforts have been complicated by the $29 billion price tag and how little is still known about the chemicals, including how to remediate them.
Solutions, he said, include pumping out groundwater, filtering it, then pushing it back into the ground.
"Based on what we know today, and known technologies, frankly, it will be years before we fully define the scope of the problem. . . . And after that, probably decades before cleanup is complete," Kidd said.