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Water contamination worries grow as feds probe New Castle Nat’l Guard base, seek weaker cleanups

Concerns about the effects of toxic PFAS chemicals on public water supplies in some areas of Delaware are rising with the announcement of a federal government probe into a reserve base at New Castle, and a report that the Pentagon is seeking to weaken standards for cleaning up contamination at military installations such as Dover Air Force Base.

The Air National Guard base at New Castle was one of eight sites chosen by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in February for an expansion of a national investigation into how the chemicals used on the base have affected ground water.

At the Dover base – which is not included in the ATSDR study -- contamination by some PFAS chemicals is thousands of times higher in some areas than recommended by federal health standards but cleanup efforts there could be blunted if the Defense Department, as reported, scales back the cleanup standards in an effort to control costs.

According to a recent report in The New York Times, the Pentagon is seeking White House backing for a plan to raise the level at which it would have to clean up PFAS contamination at military bases around the country, including Dover, where it used the chemicals in firefighting foam for years.

The manmade chemicals have also been used in consumer products like non-stick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics and have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers amid rising concerns about their health effects. Still, they do not break down in the environment, and so persist in some ground water and drinking-water systems.

They are classed by the Environmental Protection Agency as emerging contaminants, and are linked with some cancers and other health conditions including low birth weights, immune-system problems, and elevated cholesterol.

In February, the EPA said it would start the process of regulating PFOA and PFOS but didn’t say to what levels, or how long the process would take, prompting critics to say it could be years before any federal regulation is implemented.

While the EPA sets health advisory limits for some of the chemicals in drinking water, those standards are not enforceable, prompting some states to set their own regulations in an effort to protect public health.

New Jersey, for example, is adopting maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) for three of the chemicals, and on March 25 set a national precedent by ordering five industrial companies including Delaware-based Chemours and DowDupont to pay for the detection and cleanup of PFAS chemicals. Citing state laws on air and water pollution and chemical spills, New Jersey also directed the companies to disclose details of their manufacture, use and disposal.

Pennsylvania, too, has begun to set MCLs for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, saying in February that it could not wait for possible federal regulation before taking its own action to protect public  health. On March 26, Gov. Tom Wolf announced $8 million in state funding to remove PFAS chemicals from 17 wells in the Warminster and Warrington area of Bucks County, where some public water sources have been contaminated by runoff from nearby military bases.

Delaware doesn’t set its own standards for the chemicals but complies with the EPA’s recommended health limits. For PFOA and PFOS, two of the most widely studied PFAS chemicals, the EPA says the safe level in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion (ppt), a level that campaigners say is not nearly strict enough to protect public health, and which is much higher than the standards set for those chemicals in New Jersey and some other states.

In Delaware, Sen. Tom Carper has been pressing the EPA to reject the Pentagon’s reported plans to loosen the ground water cleanup standard on military bases to 400 ppt, or more than five times the EPA’s 70 ppt level.

In a March 13 letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Carper said “sources” in the DoD, as well as NASA and the Small Business Administration, have objected to the EPA’s proposed cleanup levels and have continued to call for the higher threshold.

“I urge you to resist these or any other efforts to weaken the cleanup standards and quickly finalize guidelines that are sufficiently protective of human health and the environment,” wrote Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

At a hearing of the committee on Thursday, Carper accused the EPA of lacking urgency in its efforts to investigate and control PFAS, an assertion that was rejected by David Ross, assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Water.

“With all due respect, I know it when I see it, and I see it every single day,” Ross told Carper. “I have hundreds of people who are working at the agency every day, who are dedicated to the mission of protecting public health, and to say that EPA is not doing enough, that’s a disservice to those people.”

That drew a testy response from Carper who said: “We’re doing oversight here. Got it? We’re doing oversight here to make sure that you and the folks at EPA are doing your job. We have our constituents throughout this country who are at risk, and we want to see a sense of urgency.”

Maureen Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Environment, denied the DoD is seeking to weaken PFAS cleanup standards on military bases. “We are not seeking a weaker standard,” she told the hearing, when asked by Carper why DoD wants a lower cleanup standard. She said the DoD is waiting on the EPA to issue final groundwater guidance.

Last year, the DoD told Congress that it had identified 90 military bases and 1,621 ground water wells where levels of PFOA and PFOS exceeded the EPA’s standard.

At the Dover base, DoD testing in 2014 found the two chemicals at very high levels in some areas. An analysis of the results last year by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists said the contamination at Dover was as high as 2.8 million ppt, or 254,000 times a level recommended by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as protective of public health.

That gave the Dover base the nation’s fourth-highest level of PFOA and PFOS contamination among 131 bases covered by the analysis. The study also found that the New Castle Air National Guard base contained the chemicals at up to 758 times the ATSDR limit, while contamination at the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center at Wilmington was as high as 176 times the recommended standard.

The EPA declined to say whether the DoD was pressing for a weaker cleanup standard, as alleged by Carper, or whether it was resisting that pressure. EPA spokeswoman Andrea Drinkard said on March 22 that the agency had received Carper’s letter and would respond “through the proper channels.” She called PFAS a “top priority” for the EPA and the Trump administration.

The Pentagon did not respond to two phone calls seeking comment on Carper’s letter and the Times report.

At the Dover base, spokeswoman Capt. Ashleigh Peck said on March 26 that there has been no additional testing since last October, when she said the 2.8 million ppt level found for PFOS and PFOA at one site in 2014 was “inconsistent” with other samples in the same area. A more representative result, she said, was 290,000 ppt, or 26,000 times higher than the health recommendation from ATSDR.

Peck said the Dover base started using PFOS-free fire-fighting foam in its emergency vehicles in 2016, and in its two hangars in 2017 and 2018. The new foam contains only “trace amounts” of PFOA, she said.

ATSDR declined to say why the Dover base was not chosen for the PFAS study despite its very high contamination levels. The agency said in a statement that it expects to take blood samples from about 400 randomly selected people in each of the eight locations including near the New Castle Air National Guard Base. The communities were chosen because they are near current or former military bases that are known to have had PFAS chemicals in their drinking water, the agency said.

Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which is working with EPA on PFAS, said five public water wells in New Castle were found in 2014 with PFOS and PFOA at above the EPA’s health advisory level but that the water is now within the health limit after treatment by the water utility, Artesian, and the City of New Castle Municipal Services Commission.

The source of the New Castle contamination is unclear because there are “multiple potential sources” in the area, said DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti. He said there are confirmed concentrations of PFOA and PFOS, likely from fire-fighting foam, in ground water at the New Castle Air National Guard base.

Globetti referred a question on why the Dover base wasn’t included in the ATSDR study to that agency.

Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network said reports of the DoD seeking to weaken cleanup standards at bases like DAFB could expose nearby residents as well as military personnel to dangerous levels of PFAS.

“It's unconscionable that the Department of Defense would make a decision about whether or not to clean up pollution they caused based on cost, especially considering they are the polluter, and shameful they are lobbying to subvert the scientific analysis by agencies such as ATSDR that inform us that much stricter standards are needed to adequately clean up PFAS and make drinking water safe,” she said.    

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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