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For Bucks families living on bottled water, a frustrating wait for contamination cleanup

Residents of one West Rockhill Township neighborhood have been using bottled water for three years. Now, investigators say PFAS chemicals are also in soil and runoff water.

Angela Goodwin of Sellersville points to a runoff ditch in her backyard. The runoff water and her soil were tested for PFAS contamination, which was found in her well water three years ago.
Angela Goodwin of Sellersville points to a runoff ditch in her backyard. The runoff water and her soil were tested for PFAS contamination, which was found in her well water three years ago.Read moreLaura McCrystal / staff

In August, investigators tramped again onto Angela Goodwin’s property. This time, they weren’t testing the water, which she already knew had been contaminated with chemicals from firefighting foam. Instead, they bored small holes in her West Rockhill backyard.

A machine called a Geoprobe pushed a tube into the ground and collected soil. The holes were refilled, and nearly two months later the state confirmed that her yard was also contaminated with the substances, known as PFAS. So is storm water that drains into a ditch on the edge of her property.

Along with a dozen neighbors in her upper Bucks County community, Goodwin has already spent the last three years cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth with bottled water provided by the state. The letter informing Goodwin that her land was also tainted arrived a few weeks before the 19-year anniversary of the date she and her husband purchased the home, which they renovated from a small ranch house into a two-story Cape Cod with a wraparound porch. She was heartbroken.

“This was supposed to be our forever home," Goodwin said.

The laborious and federally required testing protocol for soil and water contamination leaves residents dealing with PFAS feeling stuck in the bureaucracy, unable to get the kind of response or action they believe is only reasonable. It’s a problem seen in neighborhoods, states, and the entire country as officials attempt to grapple with the unexpected contamination and affected residents clamor for cleanup and health testing.

Goodwin once loved gardening in her large backyard, letting her dogs run around, and hosting picnics at her home on Tabor Road, a quiet, private street in a rural community. Now she’s waiting for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to install a filter on her well water and continue testing the soil in its bid to determine the cause of the contamination and the best way to deal with it.

State officials have not yet given her a timeline for completing their examination or said if they will test soil at the other East and West Rockhill Township homes where tainted water has been found.

Goodwin’s ordeal, however, highlights the continuing saga of PFAS contamination in Southeastern Pennsylvania, just one region grappling with a nationwide PFAS crisis.

“I have a government that’s supposed to be taking care of us, and to me I don’t see that happening,” she said. “To me, I’m fighting against them, and I shouldn’t have to do that.”

Virginia Cain, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the recent testing is just one step in learning where the chemicals are present, and several other steps must occur before officials can decide how or whether to excavate the tainted soil. While the federal Environmental Protection Agency has a health advisory level for PFAS in drinking water, there is no standard or guideline set for dealing with the chemicals in soil.

The military faces years of cleanup at the former Willow Grove and Warminster bases, where PFAS tainted public and private drinking water that serves tens of thousands of residents in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington.

Residents of seven homes in Warwick Township have also been living on bottled water for three years. Lower levels of PFAS have been found in drinking water in several other towns in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The chemicals have been linked to cancers, fertility problems, and other health issues.

Most of the region’s contamination is linked to the military bases. But in East and West Rockhill, also known as the Ridge Run site, the cause of contamination hasn’t been determined, meaning the state is responsible for testing, investigating, and providing a drinking-water fix for now.

“Once we can better understand the extent of contamination in the area … then we can start thinking about how we can remove it,” Cain said.

The DEP is also focused on installing water-treatment systems in the contaminated homes, which requires multiple appointments to sample each resident’s water and do the installation.

Federal, state, and local lawmakers from communities across the country have criticized the EPA and the Department of Defense for moving slowly in regulating and cleaning up PFAS.

“It could take years. They always have to evaluate everything,” said Sandy Moyer, 60. She and her husband live next door to Goodwin and also haven’t been able to use their tap water in three years.

In 1986, the expanse that is the Goodwins’ backyard was covered with thick, white firefighting foam that was sprayed over the area when 150,000 tires owned by Bergey’s Inc. caught fire behind the homes. Moyer recalls seeing both the fire and the foam and taking photos of the resulting white suds, which sat for days in the ditch between her house and the Goodwins’, where tainted water now runs.

Whether the firefighting at Bergey’s caused the PFAS contamination is what the DEP is trying to determine through its tests. An attorney representing Bergey’s did not respond to a request for comment.

Goodwin would like the state to buy her home so she can leave and regulators can continue testing. Otherwise, she said, she worries she might not be able to sell it.

Barring that, she would like regulators to remove the contaminated soil — and hook her neighborhood up to public water — so that her life can return to normal. Goodwin wants to have picnics, plant vegetables, and let her dogs run free in her yard without worrying.

“We understand that you are frustrated with the pace of the investigation as we continue working to thoroughly understand the full scope of the impact of PFAS,” DEP environmental protection specialist Colin R. Wade wrote late last month in response to an email from Goodwin expressing frustration. "It is extremely difficult to formulate a cleanup plan without first knowing the extent of the contamination.”

Wade added that buying her property was not part of the state’s cleanup authority under its federal obligations.

So Goodwin feels as if she remains in limbo.

“This is not right to just let homeowners … sit like this and just wait,” Goodwin said. “How long am I waiting for? A year? Two years? It’s been three years already."

Now, she feels disgusted every day as she returns from work and has to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing her teeth.