Jan. 10, 2018, is a day etched in Jim Holmes’ mind. He was flying Hurricane Maria recovery helicopter missions in Puerto Rico when he got a phone call from his family doctor with the news that Kaela, his 17-year-old daughter, hadDiffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), an extremely rare, difficult-to-treat brain cancer.
She had complained about blurred vision. “We thought she just needed new glasses,” Holmes said during emotional testimony March 11 before the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations.
“Kaela was a beautiful, intelligent, loving daughter who loved her Army family with all her heart,” he testified. “She made a positive impact on everyone she ever encountered, excelled in school and never disappointed me once in her 17 years of life,” he added. “Kaela bravely fought the cancer for fifteen months. During this time, she displayed a mental and physical toughness that few people in this world know.”
Kaela, a Satellite High School student, died March 29, 2019, three days after her 17th birthday with her parents and the family dog at her side.
“I lost my only child due to being poisoned by the same military that I faithfully served and fought for,” Holmes told the subcommittee.
It’s a bitter truth for Holmes to swallow.
After devoting 30 years of his his life to the U.S. military, Holmes always thought the top brass would always have his back. Now, after losing Kaela, he says he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“The Air Force just acts like it doesn’t matter,” said Holmes, 48, who grew up in Denver Colorado and also served in the Air Force.
All he wants now is for the military to take responsibility for the contamination they caused and the lives those chemicals have claimed.
“We don’t want any money. All we want to do is to make sure Kaela’s friends and our friends who still live in the area have safe drinking water,” Holmes said.
Holmes, who now lives in Suntree, recently joined a live Facebook discussion about so-called PFAS chemicals with actor/activist Mark Ruffalo and Robert Bilott,the attorney who Ruffalo portrays in the recent Hollywood film, Dark Waters. The film tells the story of Bilott’s real-life case against DuPont, after the company contaminated a West Virginian town with PFAS chemicals.
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals, once commonly used in firefighting foams, are unregulated. But science is finding that even at extremely low exposures, the compounds are implicated in some types of cancer, thyroid defects, immune suppression and pregnancy complications, according to a scientific panel that examined the chemicals from 2005 to 2013 and recent scientific studies.
Test have found the same chemicals in groundwater in Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach.
Congress is debating whether, or to what extent, to make industry responsible for PFAS cleanups. Proposals include forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enact a strict limit for the chemicals in drinking water and to deem some of them “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law, freeing up more federal money for cleanups.
“What really killed us after Kaela passed away, and we started learning about the contamination and its link to her cancer, was the lack of concern by the command leadership at Patrick Air Force Base and the DoD (Department of Defense) in general,” Holmes said during the recent live Facebook broadcast with Ruffalo, which was arranged by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
“In this case, industry has known at least since the ’60s that these substances were toxic,” said Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs.
Holmes wants the federal government to put up $25 million for a grant program to help provide filters at people’s homes to remove the so called perfluorinated compounds he says killed his daughter.
“Not once in the 16 years we’ve lived in the Patrick Air Force Base/Satellite Beach, FL area were we ever made aware that the ground water was severely contaminated with a hazardous substance called PFAS,” Holmes told the congressional subcommittee.
As people were getting sick and desperate, the military remained adamant for years that they never owned, leased or used an old dump site just south of Patrick Air Force Base.
But last year later, the Department of Defense reversed its long-standing position and admitted its forces are responsible for whatever military waste might be buried there. The about-face came after military researchers recently unearthed some 70-odd-year-old documents seemingly out of nowhere, proving the military had used the site as a waste dump.
Kaela’s physician, in a letter on behalf of the Holmes family, asserts that PFAS contamination near the base could have caused her cancer. Aside from exposure to the chemicals and pure chance, “which is admittedly a distinct possibility with all rare forms of cancer and disease, I have no other explanation for the development of Kaela’s brain tumor,” Dr. Danny Berk, wrote.
“She was a healthy and very health-minded young lady with no other identifiable factors for malignancy (such as family history, unhealthy lifestyle choices/diet, sedentary habits, other illnesses, unusual medications or exposures),” Berk added.
“In summary, I think it just as likely as not that PFAS exposure was a contributor to Kaela’s disease and eventual death. In my opinion, Satellite Beach and potentially the surrounding communities deserve and unbiased and thorough investigation of PFAS followed by all mitigation strategies deemed appropriate for this known carcinogen.”
Health concerns near Patrick Air Force Base were brought to light in 2018 by Dr. Julie Greenwalt, an oncologist, cancer survivor and Satellite Beach High School graduate. Greenwalt heard of other SHS alumni — at least 20 — all young, predominantly female, having been diagnosed with cancer within a few years of each other. She recovered. Others did not.
Greenwalt’s concerns resulted in a new federal and state investigation into a military waste site just southeast of Patrick Air Force Base and a series of groundwater and drinking water tests in the area.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials say they failed during a previous investigation in the early 1990s to find key documents proving the military was responsible for waste dumped near the base. That was when public health concerns led to federal investigations that concluded the buried waste posed no significantly higher public health risk to the area.
But many who at the time championed cleaning up the off-base waste in the 1990s remained skeptical.
Some health research suggests only several parts per trillion in drinking water is safe for the unregulated PFAS compounds. One PFAS sample in 2014 at Patrick measured at 4.3 million parts per trillion, but that was from groundwater on the base, which no one drinks.
Drinking water for the base and most of the the rest of the barrier island originates from wells and surface waters on the mainland.
The cities of Melbourne and Cocoa, which provide drinking water to the beachside communities surrounding the base, have stood by the safety of their water. The taps at Brevard’s 13 beachside schools previously had tested safe for the chemical in samples taken in July 2018.
But the district decided to run new tap water tests after all nine of the beachside schools on Melbourne’s drinking water system tested at trace levels of a PFAS compound called perfluorobutanoic acid, or PFBA. None of the other four beachside schools on Cocoa’s water system had the chemical in their tap water.
PFBA is a breakdown product of other fluorinated compounds used in carpets, stain-resistant fabric and paper food packaging. The chemical also was used for manufacturing photographic film.
“The Air Force will lead you to believe that all is well because they use City of Melbourne water,” Holmes told the congressional subcommittee. “What they don’t tell you is that the infrastructure at Patrick Air Force Base and Satellite Beach is extremely old. Broken water mains happen regularly on the base and Beach side communities. Each time a drop in water pressure occurs the pipes are flooded with this toxic mess.”
Patrick Air Force Base did not immediately return FLORIDA TODAY’s requests this week for comment.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward/Miami-Dade Democrat, chairs the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee that Holmes testified before and has taken up the PFAS contamination issue. Holmes hopes the federal government can help to fund a pilot grant program to provide special activated-carbon water filters for homes near the base to remove the compounds. Holmes estimates it would take $25 million for such a program.
“Every home in Satellite Beach, Patrick Air Force Base and Cocoa Beach, FL should be equipped with a point of entry filtration system, provided through a pilot program funded by the federal government, to ensure that safe drinking water is being provided after water main brakes, routine system maintenance and pressure drops,” Holmes told the subcommittee.
Some lawmakers are listening.
“One approach we’re taking is working through the National Defense Authorization Act to try to address this issue for communities around military bases,” said George Cecala, Congressman Bill Posey’s communications director and deputy chief of staff. “We are working it this year.”
Meanwhile, Holmes remains furious with the military he served for decades.
‘We do not hire generals to hide under their desks,” Holmes said.
When Kaela was born on March 26, 2002, the War on Terror had just begun, Holmes told the subcommittee. His biggest fear was getting killed in combat and leaving Kaela to grow up without a father.
“I spent every free moment I had building a lifelong connection with my daughter and making sure that she knew for certain that her father loved her,” he told the committee. “I trained hard, bought life insurance and did my best to ensure that she would be taken cared of if something happened to me. I never imagined that she would be the one paying the ultimate price for my service.”
Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663
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