What’s behind the PFAS Threat?

January 28th, 2020 - by Joce Sterman and Alex Brauer / WJLA: Sinclair Broadcast Group

Military Family Takes PFAS Cleanup Battle to Lawmakers on Capitol Hill

Joce Sterman and Alex Brauer / WJLA: Sinclair Broadcast Group

WASHINGTON  (December 13th 2019) — Hundreds of military bases across the country are dealing with contamination to their drinking and groundwater as a result of the use of toxic firefighting foam. And one military family is taking the fight to get them cleaned-up to Capitol Hill, in honor of their daughter.

Walking hand in hand, a thousand miles from home, Jim and Richelle Holmes took to the streets of Washington, D.C. Thursday with their daughter, Kaela, in mind. Richelle Holmes said, “She’d say, ‘What are you doing now? Let’s fix it now.'”

What the Florida couple is trying to fix is a massive contamination problem that impacts hundreds of military bases nationwide. The bases have been tainted by man-made chemicals known as PFAS that are widely used in firefighting foam.

Studies have shown the toxic chemicals have a link to cancer and other health problems. And a Spotlight on America investigation found PFAS levels at some bases are hundreds or thousands of times the level deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency. That includes Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where the Holmes family lived when Jim worked as a military helicopter pilot.

Last month, Jim Holmes told Spotlight on America, he suspects Kaela’s death from brain cancer this past March had something to do with PFAS exposure in groundwater at the base where she spent part of her childhood. There are no known studies linking the cancer that took Kaela’s life to PFAS. But lingering questions remain about the impact of the toxic chemicals on the body, with research on-going. 

As the Holmes family continues to deal with the loss of their 17-year-old daughter, they’re channeling their grief on Capitol Hill. With Richelle literally walking in Kaela’s sparkly shoes, the couple spent Thursday in Washington, meeting members of Congress.

They were accompanied by Scott Faber with the Environmental Working Group, which recently published a timeline detailing what the Department of Defense knew about PFAS contamination on its bases and when it became aware of the problem.

Among the lawmakers who met with the Holmes family was Senator Tom Carper, D-Del. Carper, a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserves, is a supporter of legislation that could accomplish two big goals with regard to PFAS: establishing a two-year deadline to create a federal drinking water standard for PFAS and listing two specific PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances so the DOD would be forced to cleanup contamination on its bases.

The legislation, despite bipartisan support, has been languishing in Congress for months. Carper said, “We’re this close to getting the legislation passed through the House and Senate and signed into law that actually goes a long way toward addressing this challenge. We’re that close.”

“We have to make this real for other Congress members. Make it real. Get folks from their districts, folks from their states who say this is what we’ve gone through. Just lay it out in human terms and that will move my colleagues to do what they need to do,” explained Senator Carper in an interview with Spotlight on America.

The Department of Defense has formed a PFAS Task Force. Its initial report is scheduled for release soon. In the meantime, the military has done testing at bases across the country, shutting down wells, providing outside water and taking steps to ensure drinking water is safe at installations where results were above EPA health advisory limits.

The agency is also funding a study to look at the impacts of PFAS on human health. Physical cleanup of contaminated bases has not yet begun, although experts say it could take decades and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Still, Jim and Richelle Holmes remain focused on one goal: raising awareness about PFAS contamination on military bases. They say they’ll continue to push lawmakers to take action, in Kaela’s honor. 

“This is absolutely what she would have wanted us to be doing,” Richelle Holmes said.

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