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Tainted water, bigger bills for residents near bases

In the region, Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington Townships are attempting to hold the military to stricter standards when it comes to chemical contaminants in drinking water near bases.

New carbon filters that removed PFOS and PFOA from a contaminated well in Horsham were installed in March.
New carbon filters that removed PFOS and PFOA from a contaminated well in Horsham were installed in March.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

By this fall, drinking water flowing into three communities should be free of the chemicals from nearby military bases that tainted it, but local residents will have to pick up part of the cleaning bill — at a cost that could exceed $25 million in one town alone in the next 10 years.

"What I'm hearing in my community, they're furious because their water bill doubled and tripled because they have to pay just for the clean water to come in, which is a problem they didn't create," said State Rep. Bernie O'Neill (R., Bucks). "They have to pay for the Navy's mistake."

Even though the military was responsible for the contamination from the former naval air stations, by law it isn't obligated to eliminate the chemicals from the drinking water. It has agreed to participate in the cleanup, but only to bring the level of contamination down to meet an Environmental Protection Agency guideline. But some experts and public officials say that level is inadequate.

The Department of Defense is testing nearly 400 bases nationwide for the contamination and plans a broad remediation – following EPA guidelines – that officials say will take years. Locally, the military is paying to install filters on public wells, has provided bottled water and public water hookups for private well owners, and is making plans to clean up groundwater. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Across the country, state lawmakers are attempting to hold the Army, Navy, and Air Force to stricter standards in areas with contamination from firefighting foams used at military bases. But because the military is part of the federal government and has limited legal liability, that's complicated.

Mark Correll, a high-ranking Air Force official, said in two interviews with the Inquirer and Daily News over the last 10 months that the Air Force would address any contamination for which it is responsible. The military has spent more than $150 million on this effort to date.

But when states want "to do things above and beyond the EPA requirements," he said in September, "from a fiscal standpoint, we have no authority to do anything other than what we're regulated to do."

Potentially dangerous levels of the chemicals, known as PFOS and PFOA, shut down private and public drinking wells in Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster Townships in 2014 near the former Willow Grove and Warminster naval air bases.

Alarm over the compounds, which have been linked to cancers and other health problems, spiked in May 2016 when the EPA created its more stringent guideline, an advisory level based on years of research about the contaminants, which recommend people do not drink water with more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of the chemicals.

In many places, residents or lawmakers want the military to go beyond the EPA guideline, which some scientists and lawmakers have questioned.

The new efforts evoke classic states' rights issues: Whether the federal government – which has sovereign immunity, meaning it can't be sued without its consent – ever has to follow state law is a longstanding debate. So far, state efforts haven't compelled the military to act.

In Pennsylvania, water bills have increased for residents in Horsham and Warminster and are set to increase this fall in Warrington as the communities switch entirely to water sources with no trace of the contaminants.

Water-company contracts and billing systems differ from town to town, but in Warminster, officials estimate that $26 million will be passed onto residents in their water bills over the next decade. In Warrington, only some customers will be affected, at an estimated average of $65.52 per customer per year, said a water official. Horsham officials estimate a $1.2 million-per-year total increase.

Last week, O'Neill introduced a bill that he said might help relieve that impact. It would grant Gov. Wolf the authority to declare a disaster emergency for communities that have contamination higher than 15 parts per trillion, a designation that would allow affected communities to receive state grants for state funding to clean up contamination.

State Rep. Kathy Watson (R., Bucks) also introduced legislation that would add the chemicals to the state's list of hazardous substances and make clear that no municipality or water authority is responsible for paying for remediation.

She acknowledged that the legislation would not necessarily force the military to pay for the additional cleanup efforts. But she said passing legislation might give the state an advantage when negotiating with the military.

"This gives us the leverage to take them to court in Pennsylvania and say, 'No, no, no, no, no. You operate in Pennsylvania. You are subject to this law,' " Watson said. "We've checked this with attorneys and they say this gives us better leverage."

Research into legislation and efforts in other states to confront the military over the contamination showed "more of what didn't work than necessarily what did," Watson said.

In Michigan, where public drinking water was contaminated around the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan, the state legislature passed a law requiring the state or federal government to provide alternative drinking water to affected residents if the government was the source of the pollution and the state health department has issued a health advisory.

But Defense Department officials have said the military does not have to follow the law, arguing it is discriminatory because it applies only to the state and federal government, according to local news reports.

The bill was "unnecessary because DOD is undertaking many of the measures contained [in the bill] already," wrote James R. Hartman, Department of Defense regional coordinator, in a letter to state lawmakers before the bill was passed. He claimed the law "would not be enforceable" and would not preclude the military's sovereign immunity.

A similar bill was signed into law in Vermont in June, though it was aimed at a plastics company that contaminated drinking water with PFCs. It requires any entity that has released PFOA to pay for alternative drinking water.

Other states have set their own advisory levels lower than the EPA's, but it is not yet clear whether the military will follow them. The Minnesota Department of Health set guidance levels of 35 ppt and 27 ppt for PFOA and PFOS, respectively. New Jersey officials created a 40-ppt advisory and have since recommended lowering it to 14. But at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the Air Force is using the EPA's guideline as it tests private wells near the base for contamination, a spokesman said Friday.

Meanwhile, Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington push ahead with changing their water sources. That's what the residents wanted, officials said. But they don't want to pay for it.

Watson said she won't give up. The military contaminated the water, she said, so the military should pay for all the remediation.

"Everybody pays for their own mess, is how I look at it."