Water contaminants and NAS-JRB Willow Grove

nas-jrb-signWhen first I heard the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority (HWSA) was compelled to remove three water wells located near the NAS-JRB Willow Grove property due to the presence of Perfluorinated Compounds in tested ground water, I really wasn’t all that concerned.  My home doesn’t use well water – or so I thought; and since those affected wells were taken off-line, all would be “well”!

Well, I was half-right.

In July 2014 routine water sampling revealed the presence of Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) in HWSA groundwater wells located in close proximity to the mostly abandoned airbase. The HWSA made the proper decision to take two wells (26 & 40) off-line, effectively removing them from the water supply.  In addition, the U.S. Navy will continue to sample monitoring wells located on the NAS-JRB property and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has requested permission to test water from 200 private wells in Horsham.

Where I was wrong was my assumption that water from those wells affected by the presence of PFOS/PFOA would not have made it into my family’s drinking water.  My misapprehension was the result of a total ignorance of well water usage and how heavily Horsham relies on it to meet local needs.

I attribute said ignorance to my life as a “city boy” before moving to Horsham in the late ’90s.  What I knew about Philadelphia’s water supply was limited to its reliance on reservoirs located as far away as New York state and the intriguing notion of water releases from these NY reservoirs into the Delaware River that actually raise the river’s level as the swell of out-of-state water pushes down the river to huge intake valves located in the City.

Needless to say, that water is heavily treated and is reputed to be one of the best in quality nation-wide.

news148608122014110441Despite my rather sheltered perception of local water usage, I decided to attend the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) public information meeting, held at Horsham’s community center on October 7.  I learned a lot at this session, particularly how little I really knew about Horsham’s water supply.  My Big Aha! moment was the learning that all of Horsham’s water wells feed the entirety of the Township as opposed to my assumption that local wells feed only those users in that particular well’s immediate vicinity.

Suddenly the presence of these Emerging/Unregulated Contaminants in any local well took on an entirely new meaning!

Allow me to share what I learned from an hour of asking questions; listening to explanations; and trying to digest the mind-numbing bureaucratic ecological science conscientiously provided by the good folks of the U.S. Navy BRAC office and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  •  Until the discovery of PFOS/PFOA, Horsham Township through the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority (HWSA) drew all required water through a system of 15 strategically placed wells serving 103 miles of distribution piping to over 7000 customers (6500 residential).  These wells feed the entire system, not just those users located in close proximity to any single well (as I had thought).  Five elevated tanks provide pressure-leveling and emergency reserves (e.g. fire-fighting).
  • PFOS/PFOA are man-made salts used in a variety of consumer and industrial applications, such as in water-proofing clothing and fabric, non-stick cookware, food packaging and – most importantly to Horsham’s situation – in fire-fighting foam.  They are persistent in the environment, meaning they break down very slowly. PFOS/PFOA are considered “emerging contaminants” because methods of testing in groundwater were only recently developed and insufficient research exists on their long-term effects on organic systems.
    • Because of its widespread use and proclivity for bonding to proteins, PFOS/PFOA can be found in every person to some level.
    • Little is known about the long-term effects to low-level exposure in drinking water.  The EPA continues to study prevalence and toxicity to determine safe drinking water limits.
    • EPA developed and issued a Provisional Health Advisory Level (HAL) in order to minimize high-level exposures and to ensure detection where testing is required.  The HAL and new testing methods, instituted in 2013, discovered the contamination and triggered the removal of Horsham Wells 26 & 40 from the water-supply network.
  • epaThe source of the contamination appears to be the wide-spread use of PFOS in fire-retarding/fighting foam used to suppress flames from airplane crashes.  The foam was used world-wide to fight such fires.  Although actual plane crashes were rare at the NAS-JRB site, the foam was most liberally used in fire-fighting training exercises.  Three other wells near the base are also being monitored for producing contaminant levels below the HAL limits.
  • PFOS/PFOA are no longer legally produced in the U.S.  Some usage is still allowed in a few, limited, high-tech applications where no known alternatives are yet available.  Efforts are being made to eliminate their use completely by 2015.
  • Studies suggest PFOS/PFOA may cause elevated cholesterol levels and low infant birth weight.  Research showed that in large doses, they caused developmental, reproductive, and liver effects in animals.  Health effects of long-term and low-level exposure are not well-known.  Blood tests are available, but tend to be inconclusive and unable to predict individual health issues.
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Firefighting foam in use

Although stories such as these tend to raise a community’s anxiety level when we are constantly bombarded with news stories about everything that is bad for you, all available science and information concludes that Horsham’s drinking water is safe for consumption!

The U.S. Navy, always responsive to issues arising from the BRAC decision to close the base, continues to monitor wells near the airbase to determine the extent of any contamination and to further identify sources.  The Navy is also reimbursing Horsham for any purchases of replacement water supplies.  The HWSA is looking at options for permanent replacement of water capacity lost to the well shutdowns.

My takeaways from this session and from my own reactions to the information presented are these:

  • Horsham Township’s water is safe to drink!
  • The Township and the U.S. Navy (My employer in an entirely unrelated capacity.) continue to be extremely responsive and responsible when it comes to issues of concern with the airbase shutdown and redevelopment, particularly the presence of industrial contaminants resulting from airbase operations.
  • Although homeowners should take advantage of the free EPA well-testing offer, it’s probably wise to hire an independent test service for a second, most assuredly objective opinion.  Always best to double-check the checkers.
  • The worst case exposures to perflourinated compounds (PFC) were recorded in communities that lived downstream of plants that manufactured PFCs or used them to produce other products back in the day when waste products were routinely drained into natural water sources.

None of these attempts at cautious optimism for the quick action taken  change the fact that some were exposed to unhealthy chemicals due to a historical ignorance of industrial pollutants, their effects, and a casual disregard for the environment.  The fact that the pollutant was discovered offers little relief when research has yet to determine what what the long-term effects might be.

logo-2012My observations from the presentations given by the U.S. Navy’s BRAC office, as arranged through the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority (HLRA), that I have attended are that all parties involved in the BRAC process – including the EPA – are fully engaged in the sensitive subject of industrial pollutants and their cleanup.  BRAC law requires that all pollutants be removed or sufficiently mitigated before the local authority is granted control of the NAS-JRB property.

The current issue is an example where testing was initiated once a reliable method had been developed, and protective measures taken as soon as the problem was discovered.  At a time when it is often difficult to put one’s trust in government institutions, this relationship at least appears to be working to protect both the people of Horsham and our future well-being as it relates to managing the old Navy base at Willow Grove.

Insofar as the airbase redevelopment is concerned, the discovery is hardly a surprise.  The potential for pollution from airbase firefighting operations was recognized early on in the BRAC-driven redevelopment process.  The possibility of other hazardous substances being found at some point in the future can not be entirely dismissed.

A Trolley unfazed and not so jolly Holly Days

photoIt’s not often that I write about my experiences as a consumer of products and services. Sometimes though, these experiences simply beg to be addressed for either for their positive or negative experiences.

This post will address an example of each.

Do Not
Eat Here …
You’ll never eat at home again!

This was the plaintive – and rather imaginative – plea and a tweak directed at a Philadelphia trade union from the good folks at the Trolley Car Diner, located on Germantown Avenue in Philly’s Mt. Airy section.

Carol and I frequent the Trolley Car as part of our pre-game ritual for “Business Person Specials” Philadelphia Phillies games that starts at 1:05 PM.  As we had the game played last Wednesday, May 14 (a sleeper of a shutout loss to the LA Angels), we headed down early for the pre-game breakfast/lunch.

It’s only called “brunch” on Sunday’s, right?

Anyways, as we turned onto Germantown Avenue, we immediately noticed signs imploring the public “Don’t Eat Here!”.  My first reaction was “Crap! Don’t tell me we have to find somewhere else to eat!”  Then as we got closer we noted more signs, including one with a likeness of the owner and another that alleged the owner’s role in depressing fair wages and benefits.

My reaction was immediate.  “Unions …”, quickly followed by ” … Philadelphia!”

Those two thoughts, neither of them presented here as negatives within themselves, seem to always be connected.  And maybe my thought process was primed a bit by the ongoing union travails and controversy at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which included the unusual sight of union members in several trades crossing the picket lines of others.

Only in Philadelphia …

As we entered and were greeted by the host, I kiddingly asked him whether we should even eat there.  But he was immediately ready with a one-page letter, written by owner, Ken Weinstein about what was happening out front and why.  The letter, addressed “Dear Friend”, is a public relations homerun!

For my fellow Phillies fans, whose team currently ranks 28th out of 30 MLB teams in round-trippers, a homerun is a very, very good thing.  Just sayin’ …

Trolley Car Diner Mt. Airy, Philadelphia

Trolley Car Diner
Mt. Airy, Philadelphia

The crux of the matter – of course – was the inability of unionized electrical contractors to compete with subcontractors who use non-union labor.  In this case the very same International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, led by Philly labor icon John Dougherty had out-priced themselves from a Weinstein redevelopment project.  This is one of the very same unions that had recently crossed the picket lines of Carpenters and Teamsters in the aforementioned Philadelphia Convention Center incident. 

That – my friends – is karma!

In his excellent letter to some very loyal customers, Weinstein explains his plan to rehabilitate four vacant, historical buildings that previously served St. Peter’s Episcopal Church; his hiring of a general contractor; and the effort to solicit competitive bids from both union and non-union contractors.  Weinstein’s claims that the only union contractor to bid was 35% higher than the selected non-union provider.

This should be of no surprise to anyone, nor should the union’s reaction when losing fair-and-square in the market of competitive bidding.  They picket, not the site of the prospective work to be performed, but the wholly separate earning capacity of the developer – the Trolley Car Diner – with accusations of “depressing wages” and “denying benefits”.

They are nothing, if not dogged and disingenuous as to the cause of their particular problem!

Sorry, IBEW, you get no sympathy here.

So if you get the chance, show the Trolley Car Diner some love.  With a fine menu, great food, and a nice selection of bottled craft-brewed beers, you will not be disappointed!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Next is my negative experience with Holly Days Nursery, a well-regarded botanical nursery in Horsham.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I did not take my aggravation any further than the landscaping representative that decided to blow me off last Tuesday for an appointment scheduled for an estimate on planting a few trees and bushes.  But after taking a few hours personal time from work to meet him between 3:00 – 4:00 PM, a quick apology and an offer to reschedule does not in any way recognize the fact that my time should be just as important as theirs and any other customer they purport to serve.

The only thing that prevented those few hours being a complete waste of my time was that the lawn needed cutting anyway.

I already had trouble with two previous trees from Holly Days.  Both were purchased at the nursery, but planted by another landscaper.  I do not necessarily blame the nursery for both losses; but simply chalk them up as further indication that for whatever reason our relationship was not destined to be fruitful.

In an area where high-quality nurseries are easy to find, one would think competitive pressures would ensure a faithful adherence to the appointment schedule … or perhaps the drive to work a longer day when commitments are missed … or maybe a bit more than a “Sorry, I couldn’t get there. Let’s reschedule.”

The kicker was his response to my complaint of already having wasted 3 hours of personal time.  “Well, do you have to be there?”

Yeah … I do “need to be there”.  But you certainly don’t!

Random thoughts for Primary drowsiness

Slow, slow, slow today at the polls …

Saw an interesting blog post from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Editorial Board that lauds Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett for adding 100,000 jobs in the State since January 2011!  It’s a powerful statement for no other reason than it comes from The Inqy’s Editorial Board …

* * * * * *

Just voted and I was #34 at our polling location.  We might be up to 40 now.

Have I mentioned how slow Primary Days are?

* * * * * *

In our little slice of Horsham heaven I note that the Philadelphia labor and trade unions are nowhere to be found.  The unions have a history for sending union outsiders here to “work” Horsham’s polls as Democrat “volunteers”. Given the almost uniquely Democrat event today’s primary is, it’s obvious the Unions are sitting this one out.

* * * * * *

Geez … Is it really only noon?!?

 

A Primary plan

primary-electionPrimary days … I hate them.

Off year elections can at least be interesting.  The upcoming November ballot will be much more intriguing with Pennsylvania Governor and mid-term Congressional elections to be decided.

That one will be fun.

Primary elections?  bleah …

As a Republican committee representative, it’s always a long day at the polls.  What makes it most interesting however, when the political conditions are right, are the interactions and discussions you can have.  People who make sure they get out to vote are those most likely to be keeping abreast of the political news.

The greater the interest, the more voters show up, the better the day …

Tomorrow, with only one significant Republican race (PA 13th Congressional District) in my district (Horsham 1-3) and a slate of State Republican committee nominees to select, there’s not a lot of sexiness to attract much attention.  I guess I’ll pass the day baiting what Democrats turn out for their primaries for Governor and the PA 13th, which is like trying to pick The Golden Ticket out of a bag of lemons.

For those waiting patiently for my PA 13th Congressional Republican endorsement, you won’t find one.  I am disappointed in what little I have heard – which is nothing – from Beverly Plosa-BowserDee Adcock put me to sleep in 2010.  To win the 13th, you must have the connection and the energy to make inroads into the Northeast Philly chunk of the district.  Neither has convinced me they will have what it takes, so let the voters decide!

I will be at the Horsham firehouse on Meetinghouse Road for most of the day tomorrow.  Stop in and keep me from falling asleep!

A look at the NAS-JRB Willow Grove EIS

(Dear Readers: This is a rather long-winded look at the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) recently completed by the U.S. Navy on the BRAC-closed NAS-JRB Willow Grove base in Horsham, PA.  I will not be offended if only the most local and interested Internet Wanderers have the strength and conviction to read it. – Mike)

nas-jrb-signOn January 13-14 the U.S Navy’s, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), BRAC Program Management Office presented for public review, questions and comments it’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) related to the Horsham Local Redevelopment Authority’s (HLRA) redevelopment plan for NAS-JRB Willow Grove.

The turnout for the two-day event was light, as one would expect for such dry subject matter devoid of emotion-provoking arguments like those preceding the decision not to accommodate an airport at the base.  But the 80-plus who did take the opportunity was a nice improvement over a public comment last year.

I picked Monday evening, January 13, to visit and submit those questions and comments I had regarding the evaluation the Navy was required to perform on the feasibility of the HLRA plan and the environmental impacts that could be reasonably projected from the plan.

EIS evaluations are not limited to impacts of redevelopment on the physical ecosystem.  An EIS also looks at scope and costs of each Alternative Plan as well as each plan’s effects on Population; Housing; local Economy including Tax Revenue and Employment; School Enrollment; Transportation; Air Quality; Infrastructure and Utilities; Water Resources and Biologicals (wildlife).

Several basic issues should be kept in mind when reviewing the EIS.  The EIS is mandated by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) law, that sets the framework for transferring excess Government facilities and property to regional entities for reuse by the public.  The EIS process requires that the evaluation address the broadest possible spread of Alternatives for redevelopment.

images-1This is why one alternative (Alternative 3) addresses the use of the closed base as an airport.

This is not an indication, as I overheard one interested citizen conclude, that the federal government still prefers to turn the property into an airport!  It’s simply the surprisingly efficient way the BRAC law requires all possible alternatives receive a thorough analysis in a single comprehensive treatment.  This eliminates the possibility of another lengthy and costly EIS evaluation should the preferred plan require any changes, including increases or decreases in development density.

One shot, and it’s all treated equally, thoroughly, and cost-efficiently!

Now that being said, I will readily admit that until they start tearing that runway apart into miniscule pieces of industrial gravel or they build enough stuff on and around the runway to make any potential airport a foregone not-gonna-happen conclusion, I will consider that very remote possibility of an airport a possibility nonetheless.

By way of full disclosure, I work for Big G Government as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy.  I never had an issue – obviously – living within 1/4 mile of the airbase.  But a private/commercial airport is another animal altogether.  No thanks!

8dec19716dc5766c1a96425a9084d90bIf nothing else, besides its penchant for elaborate acronyms, the Navy’s EIS is extremely thorough in the depth and breadth of its environmental assessments.  The EIS report runs over 450 pages long, not including the Appendix (770 pages) provided as a separate document on the BRAC PMO website.

The EIS begins with a well-written Executive Summary (ExecSum), which at just 26 pages, is as far as I got in my initial reading.  My eyes tend to glaze over when confronted with an overabundance of detailed analysis, so I was content with reading the Summary knowing I could delve deeper into the minutiae if I wished on any specific area of interest.

Believe me, there was plenty of data to chew just on those livable 26 pages of summary presentation!

So that this post does not become overwhelming, I will concentrate on the comparative tables contained in the ExecSum.  These tables are most useful in presenting the collective data in an easy-to-digest comparison between the four Alternatives addressed.

Of course, I will be addressing only those features of the EIS I find most interesting.  My interests (density, economic impact, taxes) reflect those features I believe are most important to the long-term health of Horsham Township.  Other challenges like traffic, water usage, hazardous material cleanup, etc. are also important within the larger context of economic feasibility.

The four Alternatives evaluated are as follows:

  • Alternative 1:  HLRA-approved/preferred plan consisting of 1486 Residential Units (RU), 2.3 million sq. ft. of industrial/retail space (non-residential); 240 acres of Open Space.

    final preferred plan_8.5x11_630x487

    HLRA-preferred redevelopment plan

  • Alternative 2:  An even denser concentration of residential usage 1999 RU, 2.1 million sq. ft non-residential, 317 acres open space
  • Alternative 3:  The dreaded airport option … Take a deep breath and remember my discussion as to why this is included.  Allows for 70 RU, 1.5 million sq. ft. non-residential, 299 acres open space
  • Alternative 4:  Doing nothing at all to the property.  Obviously no development parameters, so there really is no treatment of Alternative 4’s impact.  But the most obvious to keep in mind here are no tax revenue; but still the costs of site security, wildlife control, vegetation control, etc. remain and there would be no cut-through roads.  One would assume this is no alternative at all, aside from serving as a baseline for the EIS comparisons.

Now my own personal opinion is that both Alternatives 1 & 2 contain higher density numbers than I would prefer to see.  I have in the past shared my own whimsical ideas for the base property, and others have suggested their own to me.  But that’s for another post at another time.

Here I will limit myself to comments on the EIS comparisons.  The following Public Meeting Fact Sheet, made available at all the public EIS presentations, is most helpful when comparing the three primary Alternatives.  It provides the potential impacts of all three alternatives in table format, making it easy to distinguish key elements.

Willow Grove Comparison of Alternatives

In addressing the HLRA-preferred Alternative 1, there is much to like … over 10,000 additional jobs, over $15 million in additional tax revenue, and 240 acres of new open space. But there are also concerns … an increase in population of 3500, another 570 children attending district schools along with increases in traffic, resource use, and demands on infrastructure and utilities.

banner_NAS-JRB-Willow-Grove

I am skeptical of the estimated construction expenditures (one of my comments to the Navy on the EIS).  These costs are estimated at $928 million to build out the entire Alternate 1 development plan.  As someone unfamiliar with the real-life costing of major development projects, the figure seems too low to me.  I find it difficult to believe the full build-out of this magnitude could be completed at level of investment.

That’s a problem for Developers however, not so much for Government or for Taxpayers.  Assuming there is no public financing options provided to whomever qualifies to execute any build-out (other than tax incentives), the problem is one of developer financing and return-on-investment.

Alternative 2 with over 500 more residential units adds only an estimated $1.3 million in tax revenue because, although there are more residents, there are also fewer jobs (roughly 450-500 fewer).  Not being a fan of Alternative 1’s level of residential density, it’s no surprise that I am not all that excited about Alternative 2’s even higher density level.

museumlogo2Alternative 3 – of course – is a non-starter for me.  However, the airport alternative would cost $274 million for build-out; includes 70 housing units for homeless veterans only. (This is included in all the alternatives.); 1.5 million square feet of non-residential space; but also generates only $4.2 million in annual tax revenue, most of which is coincidental to an airport operation.  This revenue would come primarily from the planned hotel conference center and other non-residential development.

The airport alternative still provides for 7500 jobs in the business park and hotel conference complex.  Few jobs – one would surmise – would be directly related to airport operations, since airport proponents continuously tell us that this will be only a small private, limited commercial operation.

I do not buy that line of thinking.  In my view, the only way an airport makes sense – both in self-sufficiency and local economic impact – is if much heavier commercial use exists there, be it commuter air services or freight operations.  The pro-airport crowd will tell you otherwise however.

The last alternative – Alternative 4 – involves doing nothing, so there’s not much to address there.  One piece of data from the HLRA consultant group is that it would cost the Township $20 million to take the property to pasture conditions (basically just grass and trees).  This includes tearing up the runway and leveling the remaining buildings.

Obviously, not much of an option.

80f29160cf7b6eb72606f23c8a5a3e10

As anyone who pays attention to this process and the seemingly endless evaluation, recognizes that this process through the full build-out – in whatever form it takes in the end – will be a long tortuous road requiring a vision and insight into a future a lot of us might be too old to appreciate … me included.

None of the Alternatives nor their preferential rank means a twit without the development money and a perceived return-on-investment to the entity taking all the risk.  To speak of town centers, golf courses, retail space or whatever at this juncture is simply a way of putting a very abstract vision into a form that can be valued and analyzed.

What the EIS helps to illustrate – in an indirect way – is the complexity of the picture, the range of permutations possible, and if one listens closely, the importance of taking our time in carefully putting the puzzle together.  This leads me to laugh at stories on local media sites where people complain about a lack of progress in the base’s abandoned state.  Articles bemoaning a lack of progress in activity on redevelopment forgetting rather conveniently that Governor Rendell caused a few years worth of  delay by pursuing a well-intentioned solution to keep the runway as a regional asset if a solution could be found to make it economically self-supporting.

When it comes time to stick shovels into earth, those with the deep financial pockets will certainly want a say in what is developed on the NAS-JRB property with their money.  Any interested developer will – no doubt – have a significant say in that decision-making process.

A healthy vision – represented by the preferred HLRA alternative – serves as a starting point from which those inevitable revisions can be properly evaluated.  Regardless of what the final product looks like, such a structured approach is intended to ensure the best possible decisions are made for the future of Horsham Township and the surrounding community.

The long road already in the rearview mirror is unfortunately only the beginning of a very long journey.