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.

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.

4 thoughts on “Water contaminants and NAS-JRB Willow Grove

  1. I was stationed at NAS Willow Grove from 1990-1995 active Duty Navy. I have been sick from neurological disorders for years now. Unknown origin? Hah. I also have Interstitial Lung Disease. Probably from all the Asbestos. I felt better immediately after I was honorably discharged. No more Pneumonia/Bronchitis/Hacking up a lung/Loss of depth perception. You name it I was not doing well. I am now on SSD with no VA pension. Denied, Denied, Denied. No history of any of my diseases in my family. I can’t believe I just found out about all this last week. No phone calls from anyone letting me know I may have been exposed to anything. I think they just figure people leave and won’t worry about it. I feel like I’m dying.


    • Sorry for your crappy health. We have been told of three EPA Superfund sites on the airbase and tales of ground-dumping all sorts of substances (a fairly common practice in those days). Certainly there must be a way of reopening a claim, if based on new information. Have you tried contacting your Congressional Reps?


      • It’s all good Mike. I’m just glad I found this information to give to my health care providers. My lung disease is rare and my neurological issues/brain lesions they are not sure why it’s there and they are not sure it’s MS but that’s what they are treating me for. I got the help from my local congresswomen Louise Slaughter. She is going to follow my claim by tagging. Sher is also helping me to obtain my in service health records. I have requested them 3 times with no reply at all. lol

        Thank you for your concern. I appreciate it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It amazes me that all of a sudden people are realizing that the land at WGNAS is contaminated. Those of us who lived behind the base have known for over 40 years.

    We didn’t have public water. We had private wells on our property. In the mid 1970’s the well water was so contaminated that we couldn’t use it to for laundry, let alone for drinking, bathing or doing dishes. How would you like to turn on every water faucet in your home and have the water smell of gasoline and who knows how many TCE’s ??

    Back then, it was near impossible to find someone to test well water. We called the township and they gave us the name of a company that we could use. They came out and took samples of water from the kitchen sink and tested it. The kitchen sink. Why did they not test the water in the well, or the soil surrounding it? I was young and naive. I never thought to call them on it. We were so shocked that they found nothing wrong in our water that we had it tested 3 times. Of course, the tests were done by the same company. We never thought that there was some kind of cover up going on. Who would do such a thing????? I knew that something was terribly wrong but, at that time, I had no resources to prove it. My Dad was too sick to fight the township or the Navy Base. I had water delivered to his home. It was just easier. I continued to have water delivered until 2004 which was when we finally sold the property for $15,000.00. Imagine selling your home for $15k, but that’s all we could get. The ground was so contaminated that no one would be able to build on it.

    Believe me, I’m no fan of crooked politicians, but the ones who are running in this election didn’t contaminate that soil. The people responsible are the people who turned their backs on us in the 1960’s. The one’s who never enforced any disposal regulations on WGNAS.


    Do something before homes and playgrounds are built on that land. And don’t think that a 12″ excavation is going to remove the cancer contaminants. Our wells were over 150′ deep.
    Think about that……


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