Almost two years after the U.S. Air Force published data showing high levels of the toxic PFAS chemical family on New Jersey’s McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst military base, it has not begun to clean up the contamination despite tests showing the chemicals thousands of times higher than federal health standards in some parts of the base.
A spokesman for the joint base said the chemicals are subject to monitoring and cleanup as part of the EPA’s Superfund process under the “CERCLA” law, but that the “remedial action” part of the process has yet to begin.
“The Air Force has not taken any action to remediate groundwater contamination at MDL, which would occur during the remedial action phase of CERCLA after the remedial investigation is completed and the full nature and extent of contamination is understood,” wrote Sgt. Austin Knox, in an email.
Knox said the Air Force is taking a “comprehensive approach” to identify, respond to, and prevent the chemicals, which have been found at hazardous levels at MDL and more than 100 other military bases around the country. Bases such as MDL have been identified as major sources of PFAS because of their longstanding use of fire-fighting foam containing the chemicals.
Knox said the base no longer uses PFAS on fire-fighting vehicles or in training exercises and has converted to an aircraft fire-fighting product that is “more environmentally responsible.”
Toxic levels thousands of times higher than recommended
Testing of about 140 shallow monitoring wells on the South Jersey base in 2016 found the chemicals PFOA and PFOS as high as 264,300 parts per trillion (ppt), or about 3,700 times the level that the EPA deems safe for human consumption, according to data published by the military in November 2016. The highest level was found in one temporary monitoring well near a fire-training area in the middle of the airfield, Knox said.
The contamination was even greater when compared with a stricter limit recently recommended by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The level was more than 24,000 times higher than that proposed by the ATSDR, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which compared the agency’s recommendations to PFAS contamination at 131 military bases around the country.
The man-made chemicals, once used in nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, are linked to illnesses including kidney and testicular cancers, immune system disorders, ulcerative colitis, and high cholesterol. They are being increasingly tightly regulated by states, including New Jersey, as more becomes known about their health effects.
But officials said people living on and around MDL are in no danger because, in places where the chemicals exceeded the EPA health limit of 70 ppt, residents or businesses have been connected to alternative water systems, have had filtration systems installed, or have been supplied with bottled water.
When testing shows PFOA or PFOS at above the EPA limit, and there is evidence that the Air Force is the likely source of the contamination, it will determine a “mitigation action” such as connection to an untainted public water supply, Knox said.
Air Force and EPA accused of dragging feet
The Air Force will begin the “remedial action” phase of the Superfund process when the investigation is complete, Knox said, but neither he nor EPA spokeswoman Tayler Covington would say when that action would begin.
Even though no attempt has been made to remove the chemicals from water on the base, Covington said they pose no risk to public health because the Air Force has “mitigated” them.
But one campaigner for tighter control of PFAS accused the USAF and the EPA of dragging their feet at the risk of harming public health.
“It is shocking that MDL base hasn’t begun a cleanup of the PFAS contamination of the groundwater considering the use by the military of firefighting foam is the cause of the contamination,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “What are they waiting for? People are drinking water that could be damaging to their health and the longer they drink water contaminated with these toxic compounds, the more it builds up in their bodies and the greater the risk of developing a disease linked to PFAS.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said it was “shameful” that the military and the EPA have not yet begun the cleanup even if the chemicals have been temporarily curbed in water supplies.
Need for a ‘long-term fix’
“The Poland Spring solution is not a solution,” he said, referring to distribution of bottled water. “Until you have a long-term fix, people are going to be at risk.”
About two-thirds of private well owners near the base have allowed the Air Force to test their wells for PFAS, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said about 190 private wells have been tested so far, five of which needed treatment.
“The DEP is confident that the Air Force has offered sampling to all residents who have private wells in areas that may be impacted by PFAS contamination,” Hajna said. “DEP encourages all residents who were offered sampling to take the Air Force up on that offer.”
In Manchester Township outside the base, the public water system meets EPA and DEP health requirements for PFAS, said Al Yodakis, the township’s director of public works. He said the chemicals had been found at above allowable limits in “several” private wells, but those homeowners had been given filters or bottled water.
In addition, two commercial properties were affected, and the township is working with the military base to extend water mains to those businesses, Yodakis said. The connection to public water is due to begin in January 2019.
Advocates say water authorities should comply with the ATSDR’s new proposals for PFAS in drinking water, not with the looser EPA standards, which they say are too high to protect public health.
The EPA says it is considering whether to regulate PFOA and PFOS, and has promised to publish a national management plan on PFAS by the end of the year. But campaigners say that even if the federal government decides to set enforceable standards, it will be years before any regulations become effective, and that’s why states such as New Jersey are taking their own steps to curb the chemicals.
New Jersey’s DEP is implementing its first regulation on PFNA at a much stricter level than advocated by EPA and is considering recommendations from a panel of scientific advisers for tough new limits on PFOA and PFOS.