The U.S. military’s use of firefighting foam containing “forever chemicals” known as PFAS has left a legacy of toxic contamination at hundreds of bases nationwide. These chemicals were introduced to Monterey County soil and groundwater when Fort Ord was still an active installation, but the military says that the risk to public health here is low.
“Fortunately, compared to other [Department of Defense] sites, the presence of PFAS is not that extensive,” says William Collins, environmental coordinator of the military’s local Base Realignment and Closure office. “The chemicals were not frequently used here and not in large quantities.”
Collins’ conclusion is the result of an ongoing technical investigation initiated in 2017, as concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the chemicals began to swell around the country.
The family of chemicals known as per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are made in laboratories and do not occur in nature. They are characterized by strong bonds that never break down, earning them the name “forever chemicals.” For the military, PFAS proved invaluable in suppressing fires caused by aircraft accidents and training exercises.
“Where we found PFAS, it is being removed.”
These chemicals are not only persistent in the environment but also hazardous to human health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency and others have found links between PFAS and autoimmune diseases, thyroid disease, kidney and testicular cancer and endocrine disruption.
The military and certain private interests have pushed back against attempts to regulate PFAS as but two of the members of the chemical group, PFOA and PFOS, may soon become restricted under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.
The investigation into the danger of these chemicals at Fort Ord is being carried out by Ahtna Environmental, Inc., under a multi-million-dollar contract with the U.S. Army. In February, Ahtna published a 1,345-page draft report, which is being reviewed by the EPA and the California State Water Resources Control Board. It’s a historical review of activities that took place at Fort Ord, plus the results of some groundwater monitoring.
The work started with a list of locations in Fort Ord where the release of PFAS would have been likely, including fire training areas, aircraft crash sites, aviation hangers, landfills and wastewater treatment plants. More than 40 potential sites were identified. Those sites were then analyzed using archival records, and many were ruled out as safe. Finally, more sites were eliminated after interviews with current and former base officials.
What was left were five sites where the military says more investigation is needed: a training area, a burn pit, aviation hangars, a sewage treatment plant, and helicopter defueling area, and a landfill. These are places that the military is cleaning or might have to clean up.
But, Collins says, the report shows no indication that the toxic PFAS chemicals from Fort Ord entered the region’s supply of drinking water. A water treatment facility built in the 1990s to clean up trichloroethane in the aquifer also happened to catch PFAS, he says: “The good news is that where we found PFAS, it is being removed.”