Two Indiana-based hazardous waste treatment companies are playing a leading role nationally in the incineration of the U.S. military’s stockpiles of toxic firefighting foam and have landed in the middle of a legal battle.
Indianapolis-based Heritage Environmental Services LLC and Merrillville-based Tradebe Treatment and Recycling LLC signed on as contractors to incinerate hundreds of thousands of gallons of the U.S. Department of Defense’s PFAS-laden aqueous film-forming foam.
Environmental advocacy groups from around the country have sued to annul the contracts and stop the incineration of AFFF stockpiles until it can be proven that all PFAS chemicals are broken down and all possible emissions are eliminated.
“Incineration does not solve the Defense Department’s PFAS problems; it just pawns them off on already overburdened communities,” said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, staff attorney for Earthjustice, the legal organization representing the groups in court.
“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.”
PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that have been used to coat and protect consumer goods since the 1940s. During the 1960s, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the 3M corporation developed PFAS aqueous film-forming foam to suppress aviation fuel fires. The foam proved effective and was made available to civilian firefighters in the 1970s.
Researchers found that PFAS chemicals were linked to a series of adverse health conditions, including liver damage, pregnancy-induced hypertension, lowered birth weight and an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.
The chemicals were also found to be persistent, meaning they stayed in the environment years after they were used.
A series of lawsuits revealed that 3M and other PFAS manufacturers knew about the toxicity and persistence of the chemicals for decades. One of those lawsuits was made into a 2019 movie, “Dark Waters,”starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued drinking water health advisories for PFOS and PFOA, two of the more than 5,000 known PFAS chemicals, in 2016.
Several months before the health advisory was released, the U.S. Department of Defense began to take steps to identify and address elevated levels of the two chemicals.
“To prevent further releases into groundwater, DoD issued policy in January of 2016 requiring the military departments to stop using AFFF during maintenance, testing and training,” Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for environment testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “The policy also required the military departments to remove and properly dispose of supplies of AFFF containing PFOS.”
Several military installations in Indiana were found to have varying levels of PFAS contamination, including the former Grissom Air Force Base near Kokomo, Jefferson Proving Ground near Madison, Hulman Field in Terre Haute and Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane in Martin County.
The contamination was traced back to firefighting foam testing.
The military services began planning to move on from the PFAS foam and to get rid of the stockpiles it had left.
The Defense Logistics Agency, the DoD’s support agency, entered into a 30-month contract with Heritage Environmental Services LLC in 2016 to begin incineration.
Heritage received a 30-month contract to handle AFFF in the western U.S. in May 2019, with the option to extend a further 30 months.
Both companies are now responsible for the incineration of millions of gallons of PFAS AFFF-contaminated solids, liquids and sludges.
At issue is where that incineration has taken place, where it will happen in the future and how that will affect the health and air quality of people living near those facilities.
The location and number of facilities used by the companies to fulfill their contracts is not being disclosed.
The Indiana Environmental Reporter reached out to the companies, but did not get a response. The companies are contractually bound to not release any statements to the news media.
The DLA said it could not answer our questions due to ongoing litigation.
Earthjustice, through its lawsuit, was able to verify AFFF was incinerated at nine facilities, including three facilities in states bordering Indiana.
“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,” said former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck.
The incineration contracts did come with strict rules for selecting incineration sites. Although the foam is not considered a hazardous waste by the EPA, the companies can only use facilities with EPA hazardous waste permits that are also approved by the DLA as “qualified facilities.”
Further narrowing the pool of potential incineration facilities is the fact that the only way to eliminate PFAS chemicals completely is through incineration at temperatures greater than 1,000 degrees Celsius, or 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit.
The companies contracted to carry out the AFFF incineration have headquarters in Indiana, but are they using facilities in Indiana, potentially putting Hoosiers at risk?
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the state agency charged with protecting the environment and human health, said it was unaware of any combustion unit in the state receiving firefighting foam.
The DLA lists six Indiana facilities as “qualified facilities” to carry out DLA hazardous waste disposal contracts.
Two of those facilities are owned by the companies contracted to carry out the AFFF incineration. One facility, located in East Chicago, is owned by Tradebe Treatment and Recycling LLC. Another facility in Indianapolis is owned by Heritage Environmental Services LLC.
The sites are not among the permitted hazardous waste combustion facilities list provided to the Indiana Environmental Reporter by IDEM, but they are listed by IDEM as permitted hazardous waste treatment, storage and/or disposal facilities.
The groups involved in the lawsuit say the Department of Defense should find new ways to protect people from PFAS contamination without potentially exposing more people to the chemicals by incinerating them.
“We don’t take potential threats to our health and the safety of our community lightly,” said Alonzo Spencer, president of Save Our County, one of the groups suing to stop AFFF incineration. “Bringing in yet another toxic chemical into our neighborhoods will have untold consequences without proper environmental review.”
The case is set to be heard in the Northern District of California later this year.
The Department of Defense has decided to study PFAS destruction and disposal further.
In the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress set a one-year deadline for setting policy for PFAS destruction and disposal. That includes the potential for releases of PFAS substances during destruction, its effect on people living near the destruction sites and setting policies for testing and monitoring air, water discharge and soil near those sites.