U.S. military does ‘clandestine burning’ of toxic PFAS forever chemicals in low-income neighborhoods

Just when you think you have seen everything outrageous that can occur surrounding toxic chemicals in the U.S. , you find out you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Researchers at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Bennington College, Vermont have just released a report revealing that between 2016 and 2020, the U.S. military oversaw the “clandestine burning” of more than 20 million pounds of toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” (aka Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam, or AFF chemicals) in low-income communities around the country.

One of the authors of the new research report conducted by environmental justice scholars states:

“In defiance of common sense and environmental expertise, the Department of Defense (DOD) has enlisted poor communities across the U.S. as unwilling test subjects in its toxic experiment with burning AFFF.

-David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College

Because scientists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even Pentagon officials have warned that “Burning AFFF is an unproven method and dangerous mix that threatens the health of millions of Americans.” Bond characterized the decision of the military to dump huge stockpiles of AFFF and AFFF wastewater into “a handful of habitually negligent incinerators” as a “harebrained” operation as well as a manifestation of environmental injustice.

“In effect, the Pentagon redistributed its AFFF problem into poor and working-class neighborhoods.”


 

Backstory from the Center for Advancement of Public Action

Understanding PFOA

In 2014, the chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid (C8 or PFOA) was discovered in the public drinking water of Hoosick Falls, NY. As concern over this contaminant grew, other nearby communities began testing their drinking water. As of August 2017, PFOA has been detected in alarming levels in the municipal water supply of three towns in New York and Vermont and in over a thousand private residential wells in the region. (The public water system of North Bennington, where Bennington College gets its water, has tested free of PFOA.)

PFOA was once a key ingredient in the manufacture of high-performance plastics like Teflon and Gore-Tex. Today PFOA and related per- and poly-fluorinated compounds—once celebrated for their inertness—are coming into new focus as an intricate human health risk that operates on the scale of parts per trillion and unfolds over the course of decades. These dimensions, the granular scale of risk, and the extended time-frame of injury, have made PFOA a new kind of problem for environmental science and policy. These concerns have pointed urgency in the impacted communities in our region.

In response to this local environmental crisis, the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College has engaged the issue on a number of fronts…

In 2015, local residents reached out to Bennington College to help them understand the alarming discovery of PFOA in their drinking water. With the support of the National Science Foundation… our goal is to use the best science to help citizens better understand the problem of PFAS contamination and secure environmental justice today. Learn more here.


 

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Overview of the study from the

Center for Advancement of Public Action

The Reckless Rush to Incinerate AFFF, 2016-2020 (March 23, 2021)

Since 2016, the US military rushed to incinerate 20 million pounds of Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF), a toxic fire-fighting foam linked to a host of cancers, developmental disorders, immune dysfunction, and infertility. There is no evidence that industrial incineration destroys these toxic chemicals. Much of this ill-advised and unproven burning of AFFF happened in environmental justice communities. The American public has been kept in the dark about this reckless effort to burn AFFF.

In 2020, we obtained four documents listing shipments of AFFF to incinerators. Two documents originated with the Defense Department and two originated with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Compiling and analyzing these shipments of AFFF helped bring the scale of this environmental justice issue into sharp and urgent focus.

PFAS Levels in Soil and Water around Norlite Incinerator: Summary of Findings (April 27, 2020)

The Norlite hazardous waste incinerator in Cohoes, NY burned Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF) in 2018 and 2019. AFFF is made up of toxic perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) like PFOA and PFOS. There is no evidence that incineration effectively destroys PFAS compounds. Exposure to trace amounts of these chemicals is strongly linked to a host of cancers and other adverse health impacts.

In early March, a team of Bennington College professors and students took soil and surface water samples from the neighborhoods around the Norlite plant. Eurofins commercial laboratory analyzed these samples for a wide array of PFAS compounds.

What we found is concerning. The soil and surface waters around Norlite are laced with PFAS compounds commonly found in AFFF. The results of this preliminary research suggest the burning of AFFF at Norlite is not breaking down these dangerous chemicals so much as redistributing them into nearby poor and working class neighborhoods. Far from destroying the toxins, the Norlite facility appears to be a significant local and potentially regional source of PFAS contamination.

PFOA Community Health Questionnaire: Summary of Findings (August 21, 2018)

A recent community health questionnaire identified previously unreported cases of cancer and illnesses linked to PFOA exposure in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, NY and Bennington, VT. In response to community concerns, a ten-question health questionnaire was distributed to current and former residents of three New York and Vermont communities impacted by PFOA. This questionnaire asked local residents about their own understanding of their health and the health of their family as it relates to six illnesses linked to PFOA exposure.

With 443 responses, this questionnaire reported 31 instances of kidney cancer, 11 instances of testicular cancer, and over 230 instances of thyroid disease in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, and Bennington. Hoosick Falls (pop. 3,420) fielded the most participants in this questionnaire, with 373 residents responding. From respondents living in the Village of Hoosick Falls, the questionnaire reported 17 cases of kidney cancer, 9 cases of testicular cancer, and 135 cases of thyroid disease. These numbers stand at odds with previous reports.

The results of this questionnaire gives credence to the health concerns of residents, and their healthcare needs. 

Regional Soil Study: Summary of Findings (August 1, 2018)

Our research has begun to identify a distinct plume of soil with elevated levels of PFOA that lies directly downwind of the ChemFab facility in North Bennington. Stretching over 10 miles eastward from Bennington into the Green Mountains and covering roughly 120 square miles of southeastern Vermont, this plume of elevated PFOA soil levels suggests extensive airborne deposition of PFOA from the ChemFab facility.

 

 


 

public housing

 

Summary of the Research Findings

The Bennington College researchers summarized their findings as follows:

  • Over 20 million pounds of the toxic firefighting foam AFFF and AFFF wastewater was incinerated between 2016-2020;
  • The U.S. military, the EPA, and state regulators all expressed serious concern about the ability of incineration to destroy the toxic chemicals in AFFF during this time;
  • Six incinerators were contracted to burn AFFF. Each is a habitual violator of environmental law. Since 2017, three of the incinerators were out of compliance with environmental law 100% of the time while the other incinerators were out of compliance with environmental law about 50% of the time;
  • 35% of known shipments of AFFF (7.7 million pounds) was burned at the Norlite Hazardous Waste Incinerator in Cohoes, New York, located within a densely populated urban area and less than 400 feet from a public housing complex. Norlite burned 2.47 million pounds of AFFF and 5.3 million pounds of AFFF wastewater, which likely was burned in violation of its Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permit;
  • 40% of the national stockpile of AFFF (5.5 million pounds) was sent to “fuel-blending” facilities where it was mixed into fuels for industrial use. It is not clear where the AFFF-laden fuel went next, although the DOD contract stipulates incineration should be the endpoint; and
  • 970,000 pounds of AFFF was burned overseas.

AFFF contains contaminants known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); exposure to trace amounts of these synthetic chemicals is associated with a variety of detrimental health effects, and some have argued that PFAS are so risky that they not only endanger public health but threaten to undermine human reproduction writ large.

“We simply must stop burning PFAS compounds.  Attempting to burn these forever chemicals can generate highly toxic emissions which endanger the health of nearby communities. Burning also releases gases which are powerful climate forcing chemicals.” 

-Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air team 


 

industrial site

Full analysis and all of the Center for Advancement of Public Action data can be found at:

www.bennington.edu/AFFF.

 

 


 

 

Project Publications

Tim Schroeder, David Bond, and Janet Foley. 2021. “PFAS Soil and Groundwater Contamination Via Industrial Airborne Emission and Land Deposition in SW Vermont and Eastern New York State, USA,” Environmental Science: Processes and Impact, Advance Article (Jan 1).

David Bond. 2020. “Understanding PFOA,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Critical Care online series (Nov. 16).

David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder. 2020. “Ban All Incineration of PFAS in New York,” Op-Ed in Albany Times Union (May 30): D2.

David Bond. 2018. “PFOA Victims Deserve Medical Monitoring, Health Care,” Op-Ed in Albany Times Union (Aug 21): A8.

David Bond. 2018. “PFOA Victims Deserve Medical Monitoring,” VT Digger (Aug 26).

David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder. 2018. “New Research Suggests PFOA Contamination Far More Extensive Than Originally Thought,” Op-Ed in Bennington Banner (Aug 2): A6. [reprinted in Vermont Digger]

David Bond and Jorja Rose. 2018. “Saint-Gobain’s Claims Don’t Hold Water,” Op-Ed in Bennington Banner, (May 20): A7 [reprinted in Vermont Digger]

 

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