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A toxic legacy: 'Filthiest' military bases haven't started cleaning up forever chemicals

The Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island is considered one of the 50 "filthiest" sites in the US (Photo: Alex Brauer){p}{/p}
The Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island is considered one of the 50 "filthiest" sites in the US (Photo: Alex Brauer)

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WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. (TND) — We count on the military to protect us from enemies. But there’s a growing threat here in the U.S., on the very bases our troops call home. As Spotlight on America has reported for years, hundreds of military bases and surrounding communities and farms are contaminated with a toxin that could harm human health. And despite years of knowing about the risk, none of the most contaminated bases have started clean-up.

The trip over Deception Pass in Washington state can be deceiving. When you cross the iconic bridge, you're exposed to some of America's most beautiful views. But on scenic Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, there are growing concerns about what else people are exposed to near the island's naval air station.

Rick Abraham has been an environmental activist for 20 years and now calls the island home. He told Spotlight on America he moved there for the gorgeous scenery, only to discover that the views may be hiding a toxic legacy.

He's concerned about PFAS chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that have been seeping through the soil at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and into the drinking water of neighboring communities.

According to the EPA:

  • PFAS are widely used, long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time
  • Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals
  • There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, and they are found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products. This makes it challenging to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks

For decades, PFAS chemicals were used in a type of firefighting foam on military bases, sprayed by the gallon on runways during training exercises and to douse fires. According to documents exclusively obtained by Spotlight on America, the military knew for years that there was a risk associated with the foam, but continued to use it, allowing it to spread into the soil and drinking water of surrounding communities.

Rick Abraham believes there are people getting sick right now because of the use of that foam. He points to data that is posted on the Navy's own website, showing high concentrations of PFAS in drinking water, though the locations of those samples are not revealed.

For one chemical, PFOA, the level found in June of 2022 was 151 parts per trillion (ppt). Just this summer, the EPA proposed interim updated drinking water health advisories that would set the advisory limit to .004 ppt for PFOA. That means what was found on Whidbey Island is more than 30,000 times what the EPA now considers unsafe.

To see the rest of the data, and to search for results in your individual state, click here.

"These chemicals are a curse," Rick Abraham told Spotlight on America. "We gotta start cleaning this stuff up and containing it."

He believes the Navy has been slow to communicate the risks and address the problem.

"The Navy, they wanna downplay the problem," he told us. "Think of a big corporation and what they do when they get caught polluting. They wanna reduce their liability and protect their image. That's exactly what the Navy's done here. It's not about protecting people. That's not their priority."

The PFAS problem extends far beyond Whidbey Island.

According to recent estimates, more than 700 military bases are either known or suspected to have contamination, and that means millions of Americans are potentially at risk. Three hundred eighty-nine sites have detected PFAS in the groundwater, and two-thirds of them have levels that exceed new federal guidelines.

A recent analysis found that 266 military sites have groundwater levels of PFOA or PFOS at levels now deemed unsafe by the EPA.

Spotlight on America sat down with Melanie Benesh, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

"If you have been living near a military base for a long time, it's possible that you have been drinking water that's contaminated, and so those chemicals could be in your body, they could be in your blood, and you could be at risk of seeing health effects from those exposures," she told us.

Despite known risks, there's been little action. This summer, the Environmental Working Group looked at the 50 military sites dubbed the "filthiest" in the U.S. by Congress, including Whidbey Island, and found that while they've all launched investigations, none have begun the phase of actually cleaning it up.

According to their findings, it's taken the Department of Defense about 3 years to complete the two early stages in the process: first, testing soil and water, and second, starting a draft plan to clean up PFAS. According to the report, "If the Pentagon sticks to the same timeline for the third stage, the actual cleanup work, the typical Filthy 50 site will have had known contamination for at least 10 years, with little work done to clean it up."

We asked Melanie Benesh why it's taking so long.

Partly, she told us, the military has to follow a meticulous process where they are required to do a certain amount of investigation before coming up with the clean-up plan. But that's not all, in her view.

Part of it is just the DoD slow walking this issue," Benesh said. "They have known that PFAS are dangerous for decades, and they have only recently started paying attention to the problem.

She sees a long road ahead for the military.

"For years they actively hid information from service members and from nearby communities," she told us. "I think there's a lot of trust lost and the DoD has to do a lot of work to regain that trust."

Spotlight on America reached out to the Department of Defense for an interview four times over two months, pressing them to sit down with us to answer our questions about PFAS cleanup. We submitted a list of questions in September, including inquiring about the delay, their timeline for cleaning, the timeline for ceasing the use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam, and many more. We never received a response from the Pentagon.

Back on Whidbey Island, naval officials did respond to our inquiry. They told us their “number one priority” is to identify contaminated drinking wells, and it’s providing bottled water to some island residents. The Navy says it is also transitioning homes to city water lines. Officials told us it’s “premature” to estimate a date to start cleaning up.

That leaves Whidbey Island residents like Brian Christensen with troubling questions. He lives just steps away from the base and sees the planes fly overhead every day. Without any definitive answers from the Navy, he's left to wonder what the impacts of those toxic chemicals may be on his loved ones.

My biggest concern is the not knowing. We just don't know what the long term implications are," said Christensen. "I'm gonna be really sad someday if something happens to my kids, because some chemical that wasn't being looked at properly affects them."

Meanwhile, Rick Abraham is speaking with neighbors and encouraging community members to speak up, hoping it will move the Navy toward more proactive steps to clean up. He summed it up with a simple question.

"If you know something about the issue as I do, and if you've seen it play out in communities around the country, I mean, how do you not do something?"


Two recent developments may play a major role in the military’s clean-up efforts. The EPA is considering formally designating PFAS chemicals as “hazardous” which could kickstart clean-up efforts and hold polluters responsible. And now, scientists have confirmed they’ve found a way to destroy PFAS chemicals permanently. Whether these developments will have a significant impact on the clean-up timeline remains to be seen.

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Spotlight on America is continuing to explore this issue. We'll have an extended investigation, including an interview with Congressman Adam Smith, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, coming up on our latest edition of Spotlight on America Presents. Look for it on your local station, or view it on our YouTube page in the coming weeks.

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