When 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.
Despite 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.
- The 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.
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.
My 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.