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Nearly 400 military bases must be tested for drinking water contamination — and it will take years

Three years after Bucks and Montgomery County residents began dealing with water contamination from naval bases, new numbers from the military offer the best look to date at the national scope of the problem.

Foam pours out of a dispenser generator inside Hangar 211 Dec. 21, 2012, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Every two years, Airmen are required to test the fire suppression systems in order to protect people and equipment.
Foam pours out of a dispenser generator inside Hangar 211 Dec. 21, 2012, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Every two years, Airmen are required to test the fire suppression systems in order to protect people and equipment.Read more(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Heather Hayward/Released)

Earlier this year, one South Jersey property owner got a notice: Chemicals from a nearby military base had seeped into the well that supplied drinking water to the site — contaminating it at a level 20 times higher than the federal government considers safe.

It's a familiar story to residents from New York to Colorado, Pennsylvania to Idaho. Contamination from former or current military installations, including in Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster, has ignited a nationwide review of water on or around bases that used a firefighting foam containing toxic chemicals. In the Philadelphia suburbs, about 70,000 residents have contended with tainted water running from their taps.

The military is now testing nearly 400 bases and has confirmed water contamination at or near more than three dozen, according to an analysis of data by the Inquirer and Daily News. The new numbers offer the best look to date at the potential scope of the problem.

But despite more than $150 million spent on the effort so far, the process has been slow and seemingly disjointed. The Air Force, for instance, has completed the first step in a three-pronged cleanup process at nearly all of its targeted bases; the Navy, barely 10 percent. The Army is in the planning phase of its process. The branches and the Pentagon say they are coordinating, but have varying responses on how many bases must be tested, and limited information about remediation timelines and cost.

The lack of answers has been so confounding that Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) moved to amend the defense spending bill to compel the Pentagon to release a list of all bases that used the foam.

But with so many sites to evaluate, the cleanup "is not super-simple to do," said Mark Correll, a high-ranking Air Force official.

While this process plays out, the chemicals in soil or groundwater could continue to leach into drinking water, experts say, meaning the problem could grow.

"I am not going to be terribly surprised if, once a month for the next several years or something, we hear of a small community somewhere that was impacted," said Christopher Higgins, a top researcher on this type of contamination and a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. "We're going to be dealing with this for quite some time."

'A significant problem'

For residents near former naval bases in Willow Grove and Warminster, the issue surfaced three years ago, when they learned their water had been tainted by PFOA and PFOS, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) that are unregulated and little understood. Used in manufacturing and in military firefighting foam, they have been linked to health problems including testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol. Research on other potential health effects is ongoing, and some experts contend even water below the EPA's health advisory level is unsafe.

Water Contamination From Military Bases

Water contamination from chemicals used in military firefighting foam has affected 70,000 residents in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. But it’s not just in Pennsylvania — states from New Hampshire to Colorado have found high levels of chemicals in drinking wells. So far, water contamination has been found near 27 military bases in 16 states, according to numbers from the Air Force, Navy, and Army. The military has also addressed contamination in on-base drinking systems on 15 installations, not shown here.
Staff Graphic

The contamination is also cropping up near airports, private plants, and fire stations. Attention has focused on the military because of extreme cases near bases, such as here or in Colorado, where about 60,000 residents were affected.

Varying levels of contamination — in some cases, affecting just one or two wells — has been found in states including Idaho, California, New Hampshire, and Alaska. In New Jersey, testing is ongoing near Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. So far, water in only three wells there has been found to be contaminated above the level the EPA says is safe.

Still, questions and tension remain. Residents have called for for health studies and additional funding for cleanup, with the support of Casey and Reps. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.), Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.).

"It took them far too long, and they have to be a lot more transparent in the way that they approach this problem," Casey said last month. "This isn't some abstraction. This is something as fundamental as their drinking water."

A long-term cleanup

The Air Force, Navy, and Army say they have similar plans: First, they will sample bases where the foam, known as aqueous film-forming foam or AFFF, may have been used, then assess whether remediation is needed. After that, the cleanup would begin.

"The overriding issue is preventing migration [of the chemicals] into the wells," said Karnig Ohannessian, the Navy's deputy assistant secretary for environment. "That's going to take a longer time." But, he said, "we're starting to have our arms around this."

Officials say they have addressed sites with the greatest danger of drinking-water contamination. All three branches have also checked on-base drinking water and are providing clean water where needed. The rest of the process is slow, officials say, because they must follow complex federal rules.

Whether the chemicals — which don't degrade once they're in groundwater — move quickly or slowly depends on what type of water system they're in, said William Battaglin, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, based in Colorado. "Waiting [to clean up] doesn't necessarily make it tremendously worse, but there could be situations where waiting would make the contaminant move from the source," he said.

The Air Force, which has the most affected bases, began incorporating PFCs into existing cleanups around 2013. Officials then started paying more attention to the chemicals as the EPA began focusing on them, said Correll, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for the environment, safety, and infrastructure. As of March, he said, 196 of 207 bases had been sampled, the first step. The inspections should end by 2021.

"Priority one is make sure that there is no exposure to the contaminant," Correll said. "Once we've assured that … you're talking eight years to get yourself to a remediation solution."

Navy officials established a policy for the testing and cleanup last June, a month after the EPA released new guidelines, and have completed sampling at 11 of 127 bases. Ohannessian could not offer a timetable, saying only that the process will be "pretty long-term."

"We don't really have a priority one, two, three to just run through the 127 sites," said Richard Mach, director of environmental compliance and restoration policy at the Navy. He said it was "hard to say" what bases would be tested next because officials did not want to alarm residents before notification or sampling began.

The Army will follow the same process as the Navy and Air Force, a spokesman said, but inspections at 61 bases have not yet begun. Only one non-military drinking well, in Ayer, Mass., has been found with contamination above the EPA's advisory level, a spokesman said.

Last spring, the Department of Defense had said about 300 bases were potentially contaminated, then backtracked, saying its information wasn't complete. Officials this month offered the 356 figure, but could not explain the reason for a difference between that number and 395 -- the sum of the numbers given by each military branch.

"The department is working in concert with regulatory agencies and communities and will share information in an open and transparent manner," Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. James Brindle said in an email..

Meanwhile, residents are waiting for answers.

"Nobody's telling us anything," said Clint Bonnett, a 52-year-old firefighter who works at the Air National Guard fire department in Newburgh.

When he was in the Air Force in the 1980s, Bonnett recalled, they used the foam not just for fires, but also for general cleaning -- or celebrating, in a spray-down ritual whenever someone left the base.

Now, he worries about other health effects.

"The information that's available to the general public ... is more aimed at soothing public panic than just telling us what it is and how bad it is," he said.