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WASHINGTON -- Facing billions of dollars in cleanup costs, the Pentagon is pushing President Donald Trump's administration to adopt a weaker standard for groundwater pollution caused by chemicals that have commonly been used at military bases and that contaminate drinking water consumed by millions of Americans.

The Pentagon's position pits it against the Environmental Protection Agency, which is seeking White House signoff for standards that would most likely require expensive cleanup programs at scores of military bases, as well as at NASA launch sites, airports and some manufacturing facilities.

Despite its deregulatory record under Trump, the EPA has been seeking to stick with a tougher standard for the presence of the chemicals in question in the face of the pressure from the military to adopt a far looser framework.

How the administration resolves the fight has potentially enormous consequences for how the United States is going to confront what a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called "one of the most seminal public health challenges" of the coming decades.

The problem is not limited to military bases. An estimated 5 million to 10 million people in the country may be drinking water laced with high levels of the chemicals, known as Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or highly fluorinated chemicals. They include thousands of people who live near military bases in states including Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

The chemicals are present in a vast array of products, including food packaging, nonstick pans, clothing and furniture. They have been linked in recent years to cancers, immune suppression and other serious health problems.

But since the 1970s, the Defense Department has been one of the most frequent users of Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals are a key ingredient in firefighting foam employed at bases nationwide, with military crews spraying large amounts during training exercises into unlined basins that drain into the soil and then into groundwater.

In 2017, after military communities around the country began to report alarming levels of the chemicals in their drinking water, the Pentagon confirmed that there were 401 known military facilities in the United States where it was used.

Further study by the Pentagon concluded that the chemical contamination had turned up in drinking water or groundwater in at least 126 of these locations, with some of them involving systems that provide water to tens of thousands of people both on the bases and in nearby neighborhoods. In some instances, the Defense Department is providing temporary replacement water supplies.

The military and many airports nationwide have relied on the chemical-based firefighting spray because it can more quickly put out liquid fuel fires and it works when mixed with both fresh water and seawater.

The Defense Department has been moving in recent years to phase out the use of the most worrisome version of these chemicals and replace them with a formulation that does not break down in the environment as easily or build up as much in the bloodstream if it ends up in drinking water. But this replacement chemical is also generating health concerns.

The EPA -- after intense criticism from communities facing contaminated water, as well as from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill -- is moving toward creating two new standards to address the problem nationwide.

A Section on 03/15/2019

Print Headline: Military: Weaken standard on water

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