Angela Goodwin’s family was down to three gallons of water, with a Fourth of July picnic planned for the next day.
That Monday, her biweekly water delivery had not arrived, and the water company had predicted the holiday would cause a further delay.
This wasn’t a minor inconvenience for the family of four. This was a crisis. The Goodwins can’t use the tap water in their Bucks County home for cooking or drinking. It’s contaminated with PFAS, toxic compounds found in firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, and other everyday items.
“Today was kind of a breaking point for me,” Goodwin, 52, said that day in her kitchen, recounting her family’s frustration.
The situation in West Rockhill Township, where the Goodwins live, as well as neighboring East Rockhill, is different from that of the thousands of people dealing with PFAS contamination caused by the military nationwide, including just 25 miles away in Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster Townships. It’s even different from another section of Bucks County where families remain on military-provided bottled water.
The contamination affecting the Goodwins and 11 other households along the two townships’ border — mostly clustered on Old Bethlehem Pike and Tabor Road — isn’t linked to the military bases, leaving the state to deal with it. Two and a half years later, the residents are still living on state-purchased bottled water and are dissatisfied with the government’s response.
The plight of these 12 homes raises critical questions as the nation confronts PFAS as a growing crisis: How many other Americans could be unknowingly drinking PFAS-tainted water? And in areas where one polluter can’t be easily identified, who will pay for cleaning the water?
As Congress considers mandating nationwide water testing, more communities may have to grapple with the answers. Pennsylvania has started statewide testing of water utilities near potentially contaminated areas, meaning more contamination could soon be revealed in other communities.
Goodwin and her neighbors want the state to connect them to clean public water — but last week, the Department of Environmental Protection said it is moving forward with a plan to at least temporarily install filtration systems in their homes instead.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been linked to cancers, thyroid disease, fertility issues, and other health problems. Nicknamed “forever chemicals,” once they get into drinking water, groundwater, and soil, they linger.
Much of the PFAS contamination across the country — including in Warrington, Warminster, and Horsham — has been found near military bases, where firefighting foams used during training exercises contained PFAS and seeped into water supplies, leaving the military on the hook for responding and cleaning up.
East and West Rockhill residents blame the contamination on firefighting foam that was used in a serious fire in their community decades ago, but the state has yet to determine a cause. Elsewhere in the country, PFAS has seeped into water near manufacturing facilities and airports.
‘Nobody wants a contaminated well’
The DEP began investigating the Rockhill area in 2016 after the North Penn Water Authority found public water contamination and notified residents with private wells that they needed to test their water.
When Goodwin got her well’s test results in early 2017, her heart dropped into her stomach. Her first thought was their property value.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, we’ve done all this work for our house and it’s all worth nothing,’ ” she recalled. “Nobody wants a contaminated well.”
All dozen homes receiving bottled water were contaminated above the Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory level; the most tainted well had a level more than 200 times higher than the advisory.
When Sandy Moyer, Goodwin’s neighbor, learned of the contamination, she immediately thought of the 1986 fire at the tire recycling plant behind her house.
That blaze ripped through 150,000 tires owned by Bergey’s Inc. on Thanksgiving weekend, and more than 300 firefighters battled it with three million gallons of water. Thousands of gallons of firefighting foam were trucked in from the Willow Grove and Warminster naval air bases and sprayed on the site.
“It just wouldn’t go out,” recalled Moyer, now 59. She took photos of the high flames, and some foam ran into her family’s yard, where it sat in a ditch for days before it was cleaned up, she said.
After the fire, health officials and cleanup crews went to the site, and residents told the township they were worried about toxics on the property.
The DEP said that Bergey’s has been cooperative but that the state has not yet determined the source of contamination. The company, which runs car dealerships and auto repair shops, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Waiting for answers
In April, the state announced a plan to install filters in the Rockhill homes rather than connect them to a public water system. Officials described the installation, estimated to cost $103,000, as "a cost-effective alternative” to extending public water lines — an option the DEP said would cost more than $2 million. The Perkasie Regional Authority disagreed, providing an estimate of $1.9 million, and asked the DEP to reconsider.
So did residents and local officials. The filter plan calls for transferring maintenance and costs to the homeowners after a year and requiring them to add environmental covenants to their property deeds explaining that their wells were contaminated, something residents vehemently opposed.
The “DEP’s decision, it has me completely disgusted,” Goodwin said. “They’re not taking into consideration our well-being. … They’re not helping us in any way, shape, or form. By doing this to us, they’re only hurting us more.”
After regulators met with township officials, the DEP said in a letter made public Wednesday that it will continue maintaining the filters until the investigation is complete. That timeline is unknown; the state is installing monitoring wells in the neighborhood.
The DEP’s clarification “gives us some temporary comfort,” said West Rockhill Township manager Greg Lippincott, but “not … long-term comfort.”
At the conclusion of the investigation, the DEP will decide whether to connect the homes to public water or make the filters permanent and transfer the responsibility to.homeowners.
The DEP estimated last year that sampling and maintenance would cost nearly $1,400 per household every three to five years; last week DEP spokesperson Virginia Cain said that may be lower but couldn’t give an updated estimate.
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, the Bucks County Republican, who has worked with the Rockhill residents, said that many of them wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“While I respect the DEP’s acknowledgment that water filtration systems are an interim response … I know residents will not be reassured until the situation is mitigated entirely," he said Friday.
The residents still want public water as the final outcome, even if filters are used temporarily.
“If the filters go in, I feel like I can somewhat move on with my life — however, if they come to me in two years, three years and say, you know what, you’re signing this deed, I will say, take it out of my house,” said Jodi Cutaiar, a 41-year-old mother of two. “No way.”
She and other Rockhill residents — joining a growing club across the country — worry about the potential health effects of the chemicals.
They’ve already experienced issues that scientists have linked to PFAS: Moyer and her husband both have had cancer. Goodwin‘s daughter struggled to get pregnant, and her granddaughter has thyroid problems. Cutaiar’s youngest daughter has an autoimmune disorder that couldn’t be explained by genetic testing.
“I can’t imagine what I put into my child’s body in womb,” Cutaiar said. “That kind of scares me.”