By Sonya Lunder, Sierra Club
Last week, the Sierra Club joined a lawsuit with Save Our County, Community In Power and Development, and United Congregations of Metro East, represented by Earthjustice, to halt the reckless incineration of toxic PFAS-based fire fighting foams under contracts with the U.S. military. PFAS chemicals are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because of how long they linger in the environment.
The Department of Defense previously signed contracts to send millions of gallons of its unused fire fighting foams to incinerators and kilns because the foams have been deemed too hazardous to be used as originally intended. While details in the contracts are still scant, at least nine incinerators in Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas and New York have been approved by the Department of Defense to burn the waste.
Yet, there is little proof that PFAS chemicals are destroyed under the normal heat and handling practices of a hazardous waste incinerator. PFAS chemicals have extremely tight chemical bonds which, in turn, make them resistant to thermal breakdown or any other decomposition. In addition, as they were previously used in firefighting foam, they are specifically designed not to break down under conditions of high heat.
The U.S. Air Force is actively funding research into safer alternatives for destroying PFAS chemicals. It is known that incomplete combustion of PFAS chemicals can form a variety of harmful bi-products including acutely toxic hydrogen fluoride or even potent greenhouse gases. The incineration is currently underway in East Liverpool, Ohio; Cohoes, New York; Sauget, Illinois; and Port Arthur, Texas where local residents have united to hold these facilities accountable for chronic permit violations, explosions, and the illegal acceptance of hazardous wastes.
Here’s more from the residents themselves as released in the recent Earthjustice press release on the lawsuit:
“As faith leaders, we believe that every life matters and that the government is responsible for protecting all people, especially our children. Our St. Louis-Metro-East Area already hosts multiple superfund sites and is profoundly impacted by air pollution. It is unconscionable to expect that we bear even more burden by allowing PFAS incineration in our home. This is another disaster waiting to happen,” said Cheryl Sommer, vice president of United Congregations of Metro-East, a group of pastors, church members, and other community organizations throughout St. Louis Metro East.
“We don’t take potential threats to our health and the safety of our community lightly. The incinerator in East Liverpool is a comprehensive health threat to those in the area, especially since they are now accepting this toxic military waste. The facility is a habitual violator of EPA regulations and continues to do so year after year. Bringing in yet another toxic chemical into our neighborhoods will have untold consequences without proper environmental review,” said Alonzo Spencer president of Save Our County, in East Liverpool, OH.
“It is critical for local communities to be informed of potentially dangerous chemical operations that could impact the health of the residents. It’s not just the families living near the incinerator, we don’t even understand how many people living in this area could potentially be impacted or how far the emissions from burning PFAS might travel. We have a right to know what’s in the air we are breathing, in order to decide what’s best for ourselves and our families,” said Hilton Kelley, founder and director of Community In-Power and Development Association in Port Arthur, TX.
“Burning toxic firefighting foam at hazardous waste incinerators is a huge mistake, posing public health risks to residents living near the incinerators and downwind from the incinerators. The incineration of this foam should be blocked by state and local officials. It is unconscionable that the Department of Defense has not informed local governments, state environmental agencies and the impacted public that they are doing this. It must be stopped immediately,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and a member of the Sierra Club.
“The DOD needs to investigate alternative treatment technologies that are not incineration or burial. We need to identify technologies that actually destroy these super-toxic chemicals,” stated Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club National Clean Air Team.
“Incineration does not solve the Defense Department’s PFAS problems; it just pawns them off on already overburdened communities. PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting foam precisely because they don’t burn. Instead of destroying those chemicals, incinerating the foam releases PFAS and other toxins into the air. DOD’s decision to authorize large-scale PFAS incineration without considering the health impacts is shortsighted and illegal,” said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, a staff attorney with Earthjustice.”
To help us take action on PFAS, visit sc.org/PFAS.