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Navy continues search for water contamination

Mari Anderson, who lives northeast of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, talks JUne 18 with Island County hydrologist Doug Kelly during a community meeting at Oak Harbor High School. (Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald)
Mari Anderson, who lives northeast of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, talks JUne 18 with Island County hydrologist Doug Kelly during a community meeting at Oak Harbor High School. (Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald)

OAK HARBOR – The Navy is continuing to check wells around Naval Air Station Whidbey Island for contaminants in drinking water.

A second round of water samples will be taken starting Monday near what’s called the Area 6 Landfill in a southeast portion of the base’s Ault Field. The landfill is the third area where the Navy has sampled water near the base.

At issue is contamination from firefighting foam previously used during training exercises at the base and from waste at the landfill. At certain levels, chemicals from those sources can be hazardous to human health. On March 27, Washington banned the usage of firefighting foam with a chemical thought to cause cancer for local fire departments.

At an open house June 18 at Oak Harbor High School, representatives of the Navy and other agencies helping with the water sampling shared findings from the first round of sampling near the landfill and encouraged residents in the vicinity to sign up to have their wells checked.

Ten community members attended the open house, NAS Whidbey spokesman Mike Welding said.

Of about 600 letters about sampling sent to residents near the Area 6 Landfill, the Navy had gotten about 60 responses by June 18, said Kendra Leibman, a project manager working for the Navy.

About half of those residents are served by city water, which is not affected by the contaminants, Liebman said. Sixteen with wells responded during the Navy’s first round of water sampling earlier this year and the rest are set to have their wells sampled during the second round.

That sampling is planned for this Monday through Saturday and July 9-14.

The sampling focuses on a variety of chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in solvents, plastics, building materials and other items and are now known to be hazardous to human health at certain levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“They’re finding them everywhere now. They’ve been used since the 1960s … and now we’re learning that they’re bad,” Island County Public Health hydrologist Doug Kelly said.

Those chemicals – polyfluoroalkyl, perfluoroalkyl, vinyl chloride and 1,4-dioxane – have made their way into some groundwater on and near the naval base, including into some residential wells.

Polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl, together referred to as PFAS, have been found in areas where the firefighting foam was used, according to project documents. PFAS, vinyl chloride and 1,4-dioxane have been detected near the landfill.

The chemicals

The chemicals can impact human health, including affecting reproduction and causing some kinds of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

After exposure to PFAS through contaminated food or water, the chemicals can stay in the body for years, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

While the chemicals have been phased out of manufacturing since about 2002, according to the EPA, they are still found in the environment and in the blood of those exposed to the chemicals.

“It gets into the environment and it doesn’t break down,” EPA life scientist Elizabeth Allen said. “When they discovered that, there was a push to find something that was less toxic, less persistent in the environment.”

The EPA set a drinking water advisory limit for PFAS in May 2016 and the Navy soon after directed 85 military bases to begin sampling groundwater, according to a series of Navy memos sent that June.

An advisory limit is intended to help protect communities as more information becomes available about the effects of chemicals on human health, according to the EPA.

Near NAS Whidbey, 15 of 250 wells sampled since 2016 have been found with concentrations of PFAS exceeding the EPA’s advisory limit.

The military is providing bottled water or water filtration systems to those with affected wells.

No wells have been found near the naval base exceeding the EPA advisory limit for 1,4-dioxane or the regulatory, federal Safe Drinking Water Act limit for vinyl chloride.

Of the 15 wells contaminated with PFAS, five were found this year within a half-mile of the Area 6 Landfill, according to NAS Whidbey fact sheets and reports from the engineering company CH2M Hill, which has been compiling the water sampling data.

The other 10 were previously found east of the former firefighting school at Ault Field and south of the runways at Outlying Landing Field Coupeville.

Ault Field is west of Highway 20 between Deception Pass State Park and the city of Oak Harbor. OLF Coupeville is west of Highway 20 south of Coupeville.

The sampling effort

From November 2016 to October 2017, sampling was done within 1 mile of areas at Ault Field and OLF Coupeville where the firefighting foam that contained PFAS was known or suspected to have been used, according to the NAS Whidbey fact sheets.

This year, the Navy moved its focus to areas within a half-mile of the Area 6 Landfill.

The Navy has also installed 31 wells for testing at OLF Coupeville, nine at Ault Field and two outside Ault Field, Welding said. Six of those at OLF Coupeville exceeded the EPA’s advisory level for PFAS.

The drinking water at the base, however, is not affected by that contamination.

Welding said the water at Ault Field comes from the city of Oak Harbor’s unaffected water supply and the drinking water at OLF Coupeville comes from two wells that do not exceed the EPA’s advisory level.

The Navy is now extending its Area 6 Landfill sampling area a half-mile farther from the base, to include most of the area between Northeast Regatta Drive and Oak Harbor Road north of East Whidbey Avenue, according to project map.

Liebman said the Navy will also re-sample six wells where the chemicals were found below EPA advisory levels, as well as some wells adjacent to those and the five that exceeded the PFAS advisory limit.

Welding said community members expressed more interest in the contamination and the Navy’s water sampling effort early in the process. Participation in public events and responses to outreach letters have since declined.

Mari Anderson, who lives northeast of the naval base, was one of those who attended the open house June 18.

While the three wells that serve her property tested below the EPA advisory limit for PFAS, she came to the open house with many questions, including why the EPA hasn’t established regulatory limits for PFAS in drinking water and consumer goods such as nonstick cookware.

“We’ll probably be dead before they regulate it,” Anderson said.

In response to a question from Anderson during the open house, Island County’s Kelly said testing to determine whether the chemicals are reaching nearby marine waters may come years after the more immediate concern over drinking water contamination is addressed.

“This is just the first step in a long environmental process,” Kelly said. “Much more will be done, but right now they’re going out and sampling where anyone may be drinking that water.”

EPA’s Allen said the federal agency is also continuing to work on the broader issue of potentially setting regulatory limits for PFAS and 1,4-dioxane in drinking water.

In the meantime, the Navy is calling on residents near the base to check in. Liebman said it’s possible there are hundreds more wells that could be tested if the Navy receives permission.

Navy representatives said that sampling is done as close to the well as possible, preferably at an outdoor spigot. The process typically takes an hour or less.

Long-term, the Navy plans to connect the affected properties to the town of Coupeville’s water supply, according to project fact sheets.

Though Coupeville’s water doesn’t exceed the EPA’s recommended limit for the chemicals, the Navy is planning to build a water filtration system for the town to ensure contamination levels stay below the EPA’s recommended limits.