It takes an entire gallon of bottled water for Elizabeth Smith to wash two heads of lettuce, using one hand to pour from the plastic jug and the other to rub the romaine clean. That’s one of the things she’s learned in the three years since she last risked drinking a drop of her home’s water.
She’s learned it takes another gallon, retrieved from the cabinet under the counter and emptied into a pot, to make spaghetti. She’s learned how to quickly tell which water bottle in a case is leaking. She’s learned that individual 16-ounce bottles are easiest for brushing teeth, each family member’s initials written on the caps in green marker.
Smith, a 44-year-old Bucks County mother, has learned other things, too: That the government officials who she thought would help her won’t answer her emails. That the guidelines her family was given by the Environmental Protection Agency don’t always make sense: Don’t wash produce with tap water, but you can wash dishes, for instance. And that no one — not the Navy, the EPA, or anyone else — seems able to tell her when her family will have clean water again.
“This is three [years] with absolutely no movement, nothing,” Smith said Monday, standing in the kitchen of the three-bedroom house she and her husband once had hoped to sell. “They’re still playing the blame game, and we’re the ones with our lives still on hold.”
Smith’s home, where even the fish tank bubbles with bottled water and the recycling bin is constantly filling with plastic jugs, is among tens of thousands in Bucks and Montgomery Counties with drinking water contaminated by harmful chemicals that, in most cases, flowed off two former military bases. Since the high chemical levels were discovered between 2014 and 2016, public drinking water has been cleaned and most houses with contaminated wells have been connected by the military to drinkable water.
The local water authority told the Navy in 2017 that it would cost $1.8 million to build a water main connecting the Smiths’ Warwick Township neighborhood to the township water or $883,000 to contract with the North Wales Water Authority to run pipes to one of its mains, said Warwick water authority executive director Mike Sullivan.
But the Navy says it isn’t responsible for the contamination affecting those homes, although it is supplying affected homes with bottled water. The EPA is finishing tests to identify the source. So Smith, her husband, and their children, along with a half-dozen neighbors, are still waiting, still using bottled water for everything except showers and laundry. And the homeowners say the contamination has affected their daily lives, their home values, and their plans.
“We’re the forgotten stepchildren,” said Heather McMullen, 58, who moved into the house next door to Smith’s 32 years ago. “‘You’ll get hooked up to public water.’ When they told us that in 2016, I didn’t think it would be 2019 and we’re still not hooked up.”
» Different neighborhood, same problem: A dozen homes in two townships are on bottled water, but not because of the military
Travel two miles along Bristol Road from the now-closed Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster and you’ll come to the village of Hartsville, in Warwick Township. Two centuries before either PFAS chemicals or plastic water bottles were invented, George Washington marched his army down the path that is now Old York Road.
The houses that now line it and adjacent Hart Lane were built in the 1950s, with more green space between them than is found in most of today’s developments.
It was 2016 when Smith and McMullen heard from neighbors that they should test their wells, the same time as scores of residents in Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster Townships were notified that their drinking water had been contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals, known as PFAS, were present in firefighting foams used at the Warminster and Willow Grove air bases and had leached into groundwater and soil.
Public water systems had never tested for PFAS before, and the chemicals were discovered nationwide, setting off a crisis for many communities. PFAS, which were also used by manufacturing companies and in products like Teflon and Scotchgard, have been linked to cancers, thyroid disease, and other serious health problems.
So every two weeks, the Smiths receive three five-gallon jugs, four cases of 24 drinking-size bottles, and four boxes each containing six one-gallon jugs. The Navy-approved water cooler that dispenses from the five-gallon containers doesn’t have a hot water spigot, so the family has to heat water on the stove.
“If you’re ever wondering how inconvenient it really is, turn off your water for a week,” said Smith. Her kids were 8 and 10 when they found out about the water; now, they’re 12 and 14. “Don’t use your faucet. Try it. See what it’s like. It’s not fun.”
A few scattered houses in the Willow Grove-Warminster region are still being hooked up to public water with military funding; in Horsham, for example, 90 well owners have been connected, four have declined or not responded to the offer, and four are in progress, the water authority said. Another group of houses in East and West Rockhill Townships remains on bottled water because of nonmilitary PFAS contamination.
State lawmakers and members of Congress are working on bills to force officials to regulate the chemicals. Homeowners in similarly affected communities nationwide, some of whom also have had to use bottled water, have lobbied officials for immediate cleanup and safety standards. Some have sued the chemical manufacturers or alleged polluters.
But in Hartsville, all of that seems to have occurred on a different planet. The lobbying, the politics, the meetings — none of it matters to people without tap water.
“It’s a real injustice when I read the newspaper and [officials say] ‘Oh, we took care of it.’ No, we took care of it for the people with the public water,” McMullen said. “Did you forget about the people that can’t get their water the way you get it?”
Warwick Township is ready to connect the homes to public water as soon as funding is in place, Township Manager Kyle Seckinger said.
“We have construction cost estimates, we have construction plans. We were ahead of this three years ago ... so that once the funding was made available we could immediately go to bid and get the water installed as quickly as humanly possible,” Seckinger said.
Denying that the chemicals could have flowed from its base to these houses, the Navy has pointed to the Hartsville Fire Company, according to township officials and the fire company. Surface testing did not confirm that the fire company had caused the contamination; the EPA did groundwater testing in April and said Thursday the results were expected within two weeks.
“We’re all holding our breath waiting for this to come out,” said fire company president Ed Pfeiffer. “The chances are about, I don’t know, one in a million that we’re the contaminators. … That’s my bet — we’re coming up clean and the burden’s back on them.”
Hartsville firefighters never dispensed the chemical-laced foam at their station, said Pfeiffer, who has been with the fire company for 51 years. In fact, the only times they trained with it were at the naval air base, he said.
Pfeiffer said he had not considered what the volunteer company would do if it were deemed responsible; it does not have scads of funding. “That would be probably somewhat catastrophic for us,” he said.
“As we evaluate the results of the groundwater sampling, EPA will determine if additional sampling is appropriate and if additional potential sources of PFAS need to be evaluated,” the EPA said in a statement.
Citing its media policy, the Navy declined a request for a phone interview. A spokesperson said an emailed response to questions submitted by The Inquirer would require about two weeks.
“We’ve been struggling to get [the Navy] to provide the funding,” said Seckinger, the township manager, “and we feel like we may be on the verge of something here when we get this test back.”
The debate over who pays is a source of frustration for residents. Smith and McMullen both speculated that the money the Navy has spent on bottled water could have paid for a good portion of the public water hookup. The military did not respond to questions about how much money it has spent.
“I just wish the Navy would have said, ‘You know what, yeah, we’ll step up and take care of it,’ and then figure out who pays for it later — not make us suffer and us deal with it for three years,” said Smith.
McMullen agreed: “I don’t care who did it, something should be out there to help these [several] people,” she said. “Instead of placing blame, take care of the families that live in this community.”
A yellow-trimmed baby’s bib was draped on a hutch in the McMullens’ dining room, waiting to be framed. It was how they had found out their first grandchild was on the way, due in October.
When their son and his fiancée move in, the couple will heat bottled water and pour it into a tub to bathe the infant. They’re worried about whether their dishwasher is really safe and afraid the water could affect their laundry.
McMullen and her husband both grew up on farms and loved the Hartsville home’s spacious yard, where they gardened extensively until the contamination was discovered. Like the Smiths, they then had considered moving but concluded they couldn’t. Both families ended up paying for renovations instead of selling.
“If I wanted to sell it, I couldn’t sell it for what it’s worth,” McMullen said. “Because who wants to buy a home that has a contaminated well?”
Leonard Sgrillo, another Old York Road resident, recalled seeing his affected neighbor get water deliveries until she sold her house and left. The 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house went for $259,000 in January, according to county property records. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than what it sold for in 1989.