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The White House P.R. ‘Nightmare’ That Never Came

A once-suppressed report on water contamination in military communities has led to little action, victims say. But there are rumblings in Congress.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

On June 20, the Trump administration released a report some officials hoped would never see the light of day. The draft study from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that contaminated water across the country, especially on and near military bases, was far more toxic than the government realized. That meant potentially millions of Americans had been drinking water with unsafe levels of perfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, which can cause cancer and liver disease, disrupt hormone levels, and complicate pregnancies. Potentially millions drink that water today.

The government’s dire findings explained why political aides to Scott Pruitt, at the time the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, had suppressed the report for months, fearing what one called a “public relations nightmare.” But nearly one month after the study’s release, alleged victims of PFAS contamination don’t think that nightmare has come true—at least not in the way they’d hoped.

“The country’s oblivious,” said Peggy Price, a former U.S. Marine sergeant who testified at a congressional forum on pollution issues last week. “They’re all distracted by Trump.” Price, who was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, in the 1980s, was exposed to “contaminated drinking water at levels as high as 3,400 times above maximum contaminant levels,” the American Conservative reported last year. One of those contaminants was PFAS, a class of chemicals used in everything from non-stick pans to firefighting foams.

Because those foams are routinely used in military training exercises, 126 military facilities across the U.S. have nearby water supplies containing levels of PFAS above the EPA’s standard of 70 parts per trillion. The ATSDR concluded, however, that the EPA’s standard is woefully inadequate to protect from harmful impacts. A safe limit would be closer to seven parts per trillion.

Price believes her exposure to contaminants like PFAS may have caused her brain tumor, her skin cancer, her breast cancer as well as the serious medical problems that affect all four of her children. “I’d trade a public relations nightmare for the nightmare I’ve lived through any day of the week,” she told me.

Though she hasn’t witnessed the public outcry she’d hoped to see in the wake of the ATSDR’s report, Price is still working to convince Congress and the EPA to take serious action on PFAS contamination. “Nothing’s going to change for me, but it might change for other people,” she said. “I know that the contaminants are still out there, and these young families—I know the hell they’re going to go through.”

On Tuesday, two members of Congress—a Democrat and a Republican—took a small step toward answering Price’s call.

Military facilities aren’t the only communities with PFAS in their water. Approximately a third of households in Marana, Arizona, have tap water tainted with the pollutants. Dozens of residents of Newburgh, New York, are suing the town after PFAS allegedly leaked from a nearby military facility into their water supply. The chemical compounds are also “contaminating water supplies and the environment across both peninsulas of Michigan,” recently reported, deeming PFAS “Michigan’s next water crisis.”

But the problem could be more far-reaching, because many cities aren’t testing their water systems for PFAS levels below the EPA’s current standard, according to environmental defense attorney Robert Bilott. When they do, he said, they’re often surprised at what they find. “Every day, a new community somewhere in the country is learning that [PFAS] is in their drinking water and may have been in there for quite some time,” Bilott said. “We’re talking about a national, widespread contamination problem.”

Bilott was one of the first people to raise hell about PFAS in 2001, when he filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont, the chemical giant, over health impacts stemming from perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. (PFOA, a PFAS chemical, is used to make Teflon.) That same year, Bilott sent a lengthy letter to the EPA, warning that PFOA may pose “an imminent and substantial threat to health or the environment.”

Seventeen years later, Bilott said he’s stunned the EPA hasn’t strengthened its standards for PFAS in drinking water. After all, the ATSDR report was not the first scientific study to assert that PFAS was more dangerous than previously believed. “Even though we’ve got some of the most comprehensive human health data in existence, at least on PFOA, we still don’t have federal, enforceable standards for this in drinking water,” he said, extending his criticism to the Obama administration. “We’ve been trying for years to encourage EPA to lower the guidelines and set enforceable standards. That simply didn’t happen during the prior eight years either.”

But the ATSDR report has renewed some bipartisan pressure on the EPA. On Tuesday afternoon, Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee and Republican Congressman Fred Upton, both of Michigan, sent a letter to the EPA’s new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, urging him “to review the final toxicological profile and, as appropriate, act immediately to adjust the health advisory levels for [PFAS].” In a phone interview, Kildee said the letter was directly inspired by the ATSDR report. “As soon as we saw the study and realized that it didn’t appear the EPA intended to do much about it, we felt like we had to act,” he said.

But Kildee said the report should have more impact than previous studies because of where it came from: within an administration that has been hostile toward scientific evidence. “It’s really important that this PFAS study was released, because it was conducted by an agency that ought to have legitimacy with the EPA,” he said. This is not a study the federal government can dismiss because it did it itself.”

The EPA insists it’s taking action. “Addressing [PFAS] is one of EPA’s top priorities and the agency is committed to continuing to participate in and contribute to a coordinated approach across the federal government,” Peter Grevatt, the director of EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, told me in an emailed statement. In May, Pruitt held a summit to discuss how best to regulate chemical compounds in water. (Environmental advocates and alleged victims of PFAS pollution were not invited, however.) The agency also has held “community engagement events” to seek input from affected communities.

But Kildee fears the EPA will continue to stall unless the public starts demanding aggressive action on PFAS contamination. He speaks from experience. Not only does he represent Michigan’s first known PFAS contamination site in the city of Oscoda, he represents the lead-poisoned city of Flint. “Having gone through what I’ve gone through in Flint, and now experiencing it in a different way with Oscoda, we have to force the issue,” he said. “We are have two choices: Deal with it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. I fear the impulse of the EPA so far has been to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Price fears that impulse, too. But when she left her congressional forum on PFAS last week, she saw a glimmer of hope. “I left Camp Lejeune in September of ’84, and this is the first time that anyone has cared, or wanted to listen to this story,” she said. “And that meant a lot.”