On PFAS contamination, Sen. Tillis should keep his word to military families

On PFAS contamination, Sen. Tillis should keep his word to military families

Retired Marine Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger testified before a congressional committee in 2015 about numerous toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, where he and his family lived. His daughter Janey born and raised on the base, developed leukemia at age 6 and died three years later. (C-SPAN)

In public, Tillis made promises. Behind closed doors, he broke them.

I spent much of my adult life proudly serving this country as a United States Marine. The most sacred duty of any leader is keeping your word to your subordinates so they know you will always have their back.

Sen. Thom Tillis had been a champion in Congress for his support of legislation to clean up toxic chemical contamination of drinking water in North Carolina and nationwide. But in June, he went back on his word – at least when it comes to protecting members of the military and their families.

In March of last year, Tillis supported bipartisan legislation to list PFAS — the class of the toxic perfluorinated compounds commonly called “forever chemicals” — as “hazardous substances” under the authority of the EPA. The bill would have appropriated additional funding to the agency and given it more power under the Superfund law to address PFAS contamination across the country.


Editor’s note: For additional information on the problem of PFAS pollution, readers can check out the following stories by Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg:
New research confirms presence of toxic “forever chemicals” in scores of NC water supplies
What to do about pollution from “forever chemicals”?
Two class action lawsuits, representing thousands of North Carolinians, filed vs Chemours over PFAS contamination

Tillis went so far as to issue a press statement  backing the PFAS Action Act of 2019, saying: “North Carolina has had a long and tragic history with toxic water contamination, and many North Carolina families are rightfully concerned about PFAS and GenX. I’m committed to protecting North Carolinians and ensuring our communities have clean water from the ground to the tap.”

Sen. Thom Tillis

But in June 2020, during a closed-door meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee and away from the prying eyes of his constituents, Tillis took a different position on nearly identical legislation to protect service members and their families from PFAS.

Tillis joined all of his fellow Republicans on the panel and voted against an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that would have required the Defense Department to designate PFAS as hazardous substances and increased funding to clean up PFAS contamination at military facilities. The amendment, offered by fellow Armed Services Committee member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), would have increased funding to clean up PFAS contamination at Fort Bragg and hundreds of other bases and installations around the country with known PFAS pollution. The amendment would have expanded PFAS blood testing for service members and required safe incineration of firefighting foam made with PFAS.

The Shaheen amendment would also have allowed the Defense Department to recoup the costs of PFAS cleanup at military installations from corporate polluters like DuPont and 3M, which are ultimately responsible for this nationwide contamination crisis fouling drinking water supplies for roughly 200 million Americans.

Tillis’s decision to side with corporate polluters and vote against this proposal to protect service members and their families from this class of toxic chemicals hits close to home.

While I was serving at Camp Lejeune, my 6-year-old daughter Janey was diagnosed with leukemia. More than a decade after her passing and three years after I retired from the Marines, I finally learned the likely cause of my little girl’s death was toxic chemicals in the drinking water at the base.

It’s not too late for Tillis to do the right thing. Congressional negotiators can still make PFAS pollution a priority as they finalize the NDAA. In particular, Tillis could insist that the final NDAA include House provisions to expand PFAS blood testing, phase out PFAS in household products procured by DOD, and to increase PFAS clean-up funding.

North Carolinians and all Americans deserve elected leaders who will keep their word. When the doors were closed, Tillis voted against provisions to protect our military members and their families from these toxic chemicals. As Congress finishes work on the NDAA, Tillis has a chance to honor his commitment to us.

Jerry Ensminger is a retired Marine Master Sergeant.