The NIKE missile now standing in St. Boni’s Missile Park came from one of the bunkers at the base in Watertown Township. (Elizabeth Hustad/Laker Pioneer)

What 11 area cities, including Mound, St. Bonifacius and Watertown, have hounded the Department of Defense to do over the past 26 years, DoD may finally just do on its own.

Representatives from the 11 member cities of the Western Area Fire Training Academy (WAFTA) were enthusiastic at their Aug. 8 meeting when staff from Rep. Dean Phillips’ office addressed the group about an amendment Phillips made to the $733 billion House defense spending bill, which passed July 12.

That amendment calls for a “report on plan” for the decontamination of sites formerly used by the U.S. Army and which have since been transferred to local governments – such as the former NIKE missile base off county road 127 in Watertown Township, a 6-acre parcel that WAFTA cities have been trying for 26 years to either return to DoD or sell for commercial or industrial development.

In what might be a strong indication of upper level support for the Phillips amendment and for local governments nationally, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper separately ordered the creation of a PFAS task force for reviewing and possibly cleaning up contaminated sites formerly used by the Department of Defense.

That task force will review the health concerns surrounding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and determine clean-up standards for contaminated sites. The task force is also charged with finding and funding an effective alternative to the firefighting foam currently used by most fire departments in petroleum fires and which contains high levels of PFAS.

“Releases of per- and polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS) into the environment is a topic of growing concern, currently affecting more than 400 military installations and their surrounding communities across the country,” the directive reads. “The Department is committed to taking a strong and proactive stance to address the effects arising out of any releases of these substances from all defense activities including the National Guard and Reserves.”

The Esper memorandum, issued July 23, the same day Esper was sworn in as defense secretary, came just 11 days after passage of the House defense spending bill for 2020, which includes the Phillips amendment.

The directive goes beyond even what the Phillips amendment asks by charging the task force with reviewing not just those sites formerly used by the Army but all sites used by each branch of the military. It also specifically asks that researchers find a substitute for the problematic firefighting foam used in petroleum fires.

Whether the task force is linked to the Phillips amendment is unclear, but when asked about it Phillips conceded that possibility. “I think we have elevated the topic,” said Phillips.

The Phillips amendment to the House bill doesn’t ask for funding directly but it does ask for the very thing assigned to the PFAS task force: a report on a plan for the decontamination of sites formerly used by the Department of Defense.

Petroleum compounds were found in the soil and groundwater of the former NIKE missile base in Watertown Township as far back as 1992, and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), have since been found with more recent testing on the site.

WAFTA, as well as Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, had used the site for fire fighter training until 1992. The only activity on site now has been environmental testing and the removal of above ground buildings.

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