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20-006 | April 24, 2020
Engineers with the U.S. Marine Corps conducted soil scraping operations at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma on April 24, to remove probable contaminants next to an underground storage tank after firefighting foam spilled on April 10. The scraping is designed to be deep enough to achieve a high degree of certainty that all possible contaminants from the spill are recovered. The spill happened when an aircraft hangar fire suppression system accidentally triggered, releasing a mixture of approximately 1,200 gallons of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) and 40,000 gallons of water. This was followed by an additional 20,000 gallons of water. About 22,000 gallons of the mixture was captured on base through U.S. Marine Corps containment systems and response efforts, while the rest escaped the base. An investigation into the cause of this incident is ongoing.
The commander of U.S. Forces in Japan, Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, expressed his regret at this spill, but also his appreciation for the close cooperation between the Government of Japan, the Okinawa Prefectural Government, the city of Ginowan, and the U.S. Marine Corps.
“We regret this spill and are working hard to find out why it happened in order to ensure an event like this does not happen again. However, I am very pleased with the level of cooperation we have seen at the local and national levels as we clean this up and work to manage the global challenge presented by these substances,” said Schneider. “I especially want to commend the leadership of Ginowan City and MCAS Futenma for their close coordination and cooperation following this unfortunate event. We were able to coordinate four site visits to the base starting the day after the event as well as to conduct a water sampling as soon as it was requested. I am pleased by the open communication and quick response.”
Fire suppression systems like this are used around the world in both civilian and military applications and contain chemicals known as PFOS, perfluorooctane sulfonate and PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, which rapidly extinguish fuel fires and protect against catastrophic loss of life and property. These are two chemicals of a larger class known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and are considered “emerging contaminants” that have been used everywhere in a wide variety of applications.
In solid form, PFAS substances are also used commonly in household products such as nonstick cookware, clothing, shoes, furniture and carpeting. Both the U.S. and Japan are working to find safer alternatives, but there are no national environmental governing standards for these substances in either country. Despite this lack of standards, however, both countries have suggested limitations on the combined levels of these substances ingested through drinking water. Although no standards or suggested limitations exist on these substances in ground water, the United States Department of Defense proactively recovers these chemicals if spilled out of an abundance of caution.
To help address this global issue, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dr. Mark Esper, created a task force last year to ensure a coordinated, aggressive and holistic approach to department-wide efforts to address these chemicals. The PFAS Task Force released a progress report outlining its efforts on March 13. Additionally, U.S. Forces Japan and the Government of Japan continue close coordination on this issue through the Joint Committee and the Environmental Sub-committee. The Joint Committee is the formal coordination mechanism for bilateral cooperation.