Defense Secretary targets cancer-causing chemicals at Oklahoma military bases

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper signed a memo on his first full day on the job to create a task force to focus on cancer-causing chemicals found on military bases including those in Oklahoma City, Enid, Tulsa and Altus.

Military Times reported that Esper told reporters the purpose of the task force was to “address all the key areas” of the military’s response to the presence of harmful chemicals used in firefighting foam.

The chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and/or perfluorooctane sulfonate have been found to have caused contamination at more than 230 military installations, according to an environmental advocacy group. The Environmental Working Group says that harmful levels have been detected in groundwater or drinking water sources of the fluorinated compounds, known collectively as PFAS.

Among the 230 military installations are Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City, Vance Air Force base in Enid, and Altus Air Force base in Altus. Another 44 civilian airports are included because they are used by Air National Guard units including those at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport and the Tulsa International Airport. The airport in Bethany is included in the list as is a civilian airport in Tulsa.

Esper said he has also asked the Environmental Protection Agency to be involved, as well as other government agencies “to make sure we go after this problem very aggressively, very holistically and get in front of it, stay in front of it and take care of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and the outlying communities that are affected by it

In his memo, Esper writes that the issue must be tackled in an “aggressive and holistic” way with a “strong and proactive stance.” The working group will be chaired by assistant secretary of defense for sustainment Robert McMahon, and will focus on six key areas: health aspects, clean up standards and performance, finding/funding an effective substitute firefighting foam without PFAS, science-supported standard for exposure and clean up, interagency coordination and public/congress perception of DoD/s efforts.

The new task force will be stood up within 30 days, with an update due to Esper’s desk within 180 days of the memo.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group, which has released maps about the location of the contamination, blasted the Pentagon and EPA for the way they’ve dealt with the issue.

“It’s time for Congress to end new PFAS pollution and clean up legacy contamination,” Cook said at the time.

A 2016 Environmental Protection Agency health advisory recommended water sources contain no more than 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, of the PFAS chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid, and/or perfluorooctane sulfonate at sites being addressed, including those under federal cleanup programs.

While the EPA’s health advisory has been in effect since 2016, neither the Pentagon nor any municipality was required to meet the 70 ppt standard because the contamination limit is an advisory, not a requirement.

For decades, the military used firefighting foams that contained PFAS chemicals. These per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are also found in hundreds of everyday household products. PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancers and other health problems.

When told that thousands of veterans believe their cancers are linked to the chemicals, Esper said that the Department of Veterans Affairs should be consulted.