THE LIGHTBULB

The Pentagon’s inspector general is examining the military’s use of a dangerous but ubiquitous class of man-made chemicals that has leached into the drinking water of millions of Americans, including many living near military bases across the country. 

The compounds — known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs — have for years been used in specialized firefighting foams on military bases. 

Now the military’s watchdog agency will assess the legacy of using those chemicals. Among the questions the inspector general's office may address are what the Pentagon knew about the dangers posed by the chemicals, how well the military has communicated those risks to service members and how quickly it plans to phase out their use.

“There may have been an awareness of the dangers of PFAS as threatening to human health long before the Department of Defense decided to do anything about it, and I think that's fundamentally problematic,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said in an interview. “The mission of the Defense Department is to protect Americans.”

The Pentagon assessment will bring the issue of PFAS contamination even more to the fore than it already is, with dozens of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle clamoring for regulators to do more and with a major Hollywood film about the toxic chemicals slated for release next month.

The watchdog agency’s “evaluation” — the office is not calling its action an investigation — comes after the request made in July by a bipartisan group of 31 House members led by Kildee and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). The Pentagon itself kicked off its own task force to address the contamination in August.

“We reviewed your July request and decided to initiate an evaluation related to PFAS concerns,” Michael C. Zola, the Pentagon’s assistant inspector general for legislative affairs and communications, wrote in an Oct. 7 letter back to lawmakers.

The exact scope of the assessment is still fuzzy, but should come into focus by early next year, according to the letter. And it’s unclear when the inspector general’s office will be done with its work.

“There’s not a real timeline associated with it,” said Dwrena K. Allen, spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General.

Its widespread use at U.S. bases around the world — most notably during firefighting training exercises — had led to the buildup of the chemical in groundwater near military installations. The Defense Department is tracking at least 401 sites for potential PFAS contamination.

That contamination is dangerous because exposure has been associated with an array of health problems, including thyroid disease, weakened immunity, infertility and certain cancers. And once in the water, the chemical can last for a long time without being naturally broken down — leading many to call them “forever chemicals.”

For decades the military has used a foam containing the chemical to extinguish the persistent flames of jet fuel and other aircraft-related fires. The Defense Department says it stopped land-based use of the foam during training exercises in 2016.

But the public doesn’t have a handle on how often the military has deployed the compounds in other ways, said Erik D. Olson, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s advocacy on health, food, and agriculture.

“There may be literally dozens of other uses,” Olson said. “We just don’t know.”

But communities such as Oscoda in northeast Michigan, where contamination from a now-decommissioned air base has led to advisories to avoid drinking from private wells and against eating venison and certain fish, have heard promises of military investigations “for years and years” with little action afterward, according to Anthony Spaniola, an attorney and a founding member of the local advocacy group Need Our Water.

“It’s a good step that they’re conducting an investigation, but I’m skeptical,” said Spaniola, whose family owns a lakeside home in Oscoda. “I hope they get to the bottom of it. But they’re going to have to dig pretty hard.”

One big question the assessment may tackle: When did the military first understand how dangerous to human health the compounds are? The chemical giants DuPont and 3M have in the past been accused of concealing and playing down the risks of PFAS. 

Those accusations have even caught the eyes of Hollywood producers. Robert Bilott, an environmental lawyer who successfully sued DuPont on behalf of plaintiffs in Ohio and West Virginia, will be the subject of a new film starring Mark Ruffalo called “Dark Waters.”

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency vowed to rein in the chemicals, but stopped short of marshaling its full regulatory might to issue drinking water rules. According to reporting from Politico earlier this year, Pentagon officials raised alarms with the White House over a draft study showing the chemicals were more harmful than previously indicated.

“I have very little faith that the EPA is taking PFAS seriously enough,” Kildee said.

That has led exasperated Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who for years have fielded calls from contaminated communities, to do something relatively rare in Washington nowadays: actually try to pass some legislation.

Attached to a defense reauthorization bill passed by both the House and Senate is a provision phasing out the military’s use of firefighting foam, among other PFAS-related measures. Negotiators from both chambers are now hammering out differences between their two versions of the broad defense package.

POWER PLAYS

— PG&E says shut-offs prevented wildfires: Pacific Gas & Electric’s preemptive blackouts that left nearly 1 million customers in the dark in Northern and Central California were part of the largest planned power outage in state history, The Post’s Scott Wilson reports. And despite the frustrated reaction from residents and state leaders, it probably won't be the last.

  • But there was a huge local cost: “While the utility says the outage might have prevented wildfires in several northern counties — and the company showed photos of downed power lines as evidence — it certainly caused millions of dollars in damage to closed businesses, generator-less households and others in places where the weather never lived up to the predicted conditions,” Wilson writes.
  • Menawhile down south: Southern California Edison didn’t shut off power lines in the region when the Saddleridge Fire sparked — a fire that by Monday had burned through at least 8,000 acres. Now, the utility has alerted state regulators that an electrical malfunction may have played a role in the fire, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, which adds that a formal cause of the fire has not been determined.

— The latest on BLM’s relocation: The Bureau of Land Management is planning to split up a team that examines the environmental impact of major projects on public lands, the Hill reports. It’s part of the relocation of most of the agency’s Washington-based employees out West.

  • Where they're going: The key team of 20 will now be separated into 12 employees in Denver and one in Fort Collins, Colo.; Phoenix; Reno, Nev.; Sacramento; Anchorage; Santa Fe, N.M; Salt Lake City; and Billings, Mont.
  • Why that may be a problem: Steve Ellis, who retired as BLM’s deputy director in 2016, told the Hill the employees are being “scattered so they can’t work together efficiently and effectively.”

— Interior Dept. panel pushes for privatizing national park campgrounds: An Interior Department advisory council has recommended expanding the ability of private businesses to operate in national parks and has pitched other changes such as bringing in food trucks to generate needed funds. 

  • The motivation: “Private businesses — including concessionaires and tour guides — already operate in many national parks, but [Interior Secretary David Bernhardt] ] and a number of his deputies have argued that the parks have $12 billion in deferred maintenance, and that such funds are much more easily found from outside the federal government than within,” Yahoo News reports.
  • The memo: A Sept. 24 draft memo from the department’s Subcommittee on Recreation Enhancement Through Reorganization notes that “[o]verall capacity has not kept up with growth and changes in camping demand, and the infrastructure that does exist, with few exceptions, fails to meet expectations of the contemporary camping market.” The note was written by Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, a group that lobbies for private industry in public parks, per the report.
  • Interior’s response: Nick Goodwin, a spokesman for the Interior Dept., told the Hill it had not formally received the recommendations. “As we do with all recommendations that we get, we’ll review the report and respond accordingly but there has been no action taken on any of these recommendations,” Goodwin said. Crandall, however, told Yahoo News the memo was “unanimously approved” and headed to Bernhardt for his approval.

— Trump’s ex-Russia advisor talks of Giuliani’s shadowy foreign policy: Fiona Hill, the White House's former top Russia adviser, told impeachment investigators in a 10-hour closed-door session about the efforts in Ukraine by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to evade U.S. officials and benefit Trump, The Post’s Karoun Demirjian, Shane Harris and Rachael Bade report. Hill also told lawmakers that John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser – who investigators may question – was “furious over Giuliani’s politically motivated activities in Ukraine, two officials familiar with her testimony said."

  • Why Bolton was furious: “Bolton and [Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union] met in early July with then-special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, Hill and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. During the meeting, Sondland’s agenda for Ukraine began to become clear, when he blurted out to the other officials present that there were ‘investigations that were dropped that need to be started up again,’ according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter. The officials understood him to be referring to Burisma, the energy company, and Biden — something that made Bolton go ‘ballistic’ after the meeting, the official said.”

— A possible breakthrough in producing lithium: A geothermal energy company says it has figured out how to extract lithium from the Salton Sea in California — the location of one of the world’s most powerful natural geothermal hot spots, the Los Angeles Times reports. Lithium is a lynchpin of a clean energy economy — used for batteries that store solar power and that help power electric vehicles. Derek Benson, the chief operating officer of EnergySource, told the Times that the company has produced “’kilograms’ of battery-grade lithium. A commercial extraction facility, he estimated, could produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually, with the potential for around 100,000 tons if the other Salton Sea geothermal plants adopt the firm’s technology.”

— Ex-EPA official who helped loosen air regulations lands university job: Clint Woods, who had been a senior appointee in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, will now be the director of strategic partnerships for Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the Columbus Dispatch reports. While at the EPA, the Trump administration official worked to revamp procedures for setting air quality standards for pollutants like ozone as well as a new freeze of improving fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. He left the agency last month.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight holds a hearing on addressing the lead crisis through innovation and technology.

Coming Up

  • The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis holds a hearing on cleaner, stronger buildings on Thursday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management holds a hearing on federal recovery efforts after recent disasters on Oct. 22. 
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on the Pebble Mine Project on Oct. 23.

EXTRA MILEAGE

 — 12 years and 1,000 miles: Katheryn Strang was reunited with her toy fox terrier more than a decade after it went missing.