PCB cleanup at Malmstrom continuing

Air Force Global Strike Command said on Oct. 23 that initial efforts to clean polychlorinated biphenyls from launch facilities at Malmstrom Air Force Base are ongoing but seeing success.

The clean-up effort was ordered earlier this year by AFGSC commander Gen. Thomas Bussiere after PCBs were detected on surfaces in launch facilities at all three of the command’s missile wings during a survey by the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.

In July, a USAFSAM team collected 900 surface swipe samples across all of the command’s missile alert facilities and launch control centers, focusing on common touch areas and places where known or suspected PCB-containing equipment was currently or historically installed.

Air Force continuing mitigation, PCBs found at another missile site

Of the 900 samples, 832, or 92.5 percent, detected no PCBs, and 64, or 7.1 percent, detected PCBs at negligible levels below mitigation standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to AFGSC.

Four surface samples, or 0.44 percent, detected PCBs above the EPA’s mitigation standards, two each at Malmstrom and Minot AFBs, according to AFGSC.

Cleaning the PCBs is a difficult process that entails more than a simple wipe-down, according to Col. Gregory Coleman, AFGSC Command Surgeon.

“PCBs are undetectable to human senses at the quantities we’re finding in these facilities,” Coleman said in a release. “We know they’re present on what appear to be otherwise pristine surfaces due to the survey results, but the only way to know our cleaning process was a success is by retesting each surface and sending the samples away to the lab. Then we wait two weeks to see if the cleaning was a success.”

AFGSC orders cleanup after PCBs found at two missile launch facilities

The cleaning teams also must be careful of spreading PCBs during the cleaning process, Coleman said, as some cleaning methods risk dispersing the contaminants rather than removing them.

The successful cleaning came after bioenvironmental teams at Malmstrom consulted with engineers and medical experts on the cleaning processes and agents most likely to effectively remove the chemicals in the unique environment presented by active launch facilities. After some experimentation, the team settled on a mineral oil wash followed by a solvent scrub, which successfully reduced PCB surface contaminants, in some cases to non-detectable levels, according to AFGSC.

Air Force finds no specific cancer-causing factors in missileer study so far

“The cleaning at Malmstrom validates our process, and we’ll use the same technique at other facilities where PCBs were detected,” Coleman said in a release. “In some locations where particularly high levels of PCBs were detected, it will probably take multiple rounds of cleaning to get below the EPA’s mitigation limits.”

The clean-up and mitigation will continue until Bussiere is confident that AFGSC airmen have a safe and healthy work environment.

Air Force team visits Malmstrom to begin missileer cancer study

“These results are a positive step toward the clean and safe work environment our Airmen deserve,” Bussiere said in a release. “We will continue with the cleaning and mitigation as more results come to us from the USAFSAM survey, and we will be open and transparent with those results and our efforts.”

In addition to PCBs, the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine is sampling for a range of other potential contaminates, including radon and pesticides from agricultural runoff. Results from these tests, as well as PCB tests on soil and water samples, will be released as they are provided to the command, according to AFGSC.

More information about PCBs is here.

More information about the missile community cancer study is here.