Chemicals found in wells near Whidbey Naval station

By Jessie Stensland

Whidbey News Times

COUPEVILLE — The Navy is providing bottled drinking water to two homes on Central Whidbey and at least one on North Whidbey after preliminary test results showed the level of potentially harmful chemicals exceeded the lifetime health advisory set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

A retired Navy doctor, who asked not to be named, said he and his wife were alerted to the test results earlier this month and soon afterward Navy officials showed up with bottled water.

“I about fell off my chair,” he said. “It was like a gut punch.”

The couple has lived in their home about three-quarters of a mile from the Navy’s Outlying Field Coupeville for 17 years.

The man said their well tested at six times the advisory level for perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Testing for the other chemical, perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, was inconclusive and has to be done again; a positive result could further increase the overall level, he said.

He said his neighbor’s well also tested at far beyond the advisory level.

Testing done independent from the Navy found the presence of PFOA in a town of Coupeville well that is near OLF Coupeville, a Navy touch-and-go runway in Central Whidbey, but the amount was below the advisory level, the town reported.

The testing at many Navy bases nationwide is in response to the EPA’s issuance earlier this year of lifetime health advisory levels on the two perfluoroalkyl substances, PFOA and PFOS, at 70 parts per trillion, individually and combined. Both of these chemicals are in “aqueous film forming foams,” or AFFFs, a synthetic firefighting foam that’s used to put out petroleum-based fires, especially those that occur in airplane accidents. Firefighters on base used the foam in practice and on real fires.

The Navy is conducting tests of drinking water wells in areas of a mile radius of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field base and the Outlying Field Coupeville in Central Whidbey. Navy officials said they would find an alternative source of drinking water for anyone with a well that tested beyond the advisory level, provided the Navy is the source of the contamination.

Earlier this year, the Navy tested a well at the site of a former firefighter training school at the corner of Sullivan and Degraff roads on the north side of the base and found that the amount of the chemicals in the water was above the advisory level, according to Doug Kelly, hydrogeologist with Island County. The site is one of several Superfund sites on the base.

The Navy hasn’t tested groundwater at the current training site near the Navy hospital since there isn’t a well there, he said. But private wells within a mile of the site are being tested.

A test of a well at OLF Coupeville found the presence of PFOA, but not above the advisory level. The Navy has no record that the firefighting foam was ever used at the field.

The Navy has received preliminary results for 34 private wells so far, with three testing above the advisory level. They will be re-tested to ensure the accuracy of the initial test.

The Navy didn’t disclose how many homes are on the contaminated well near the Ault Field base.

Navy officials hope to test many more wells — a total of 170 — in North and Central Whidbey, but property owners’ response to the Navy’s request to access their wells has been slow so far, according to Leslie Yuenger, public affairs officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest.

“In order to protect property owners from potential continual contamination and to discover the breadth of the situation, we need those property owners who received a letter from the Navy to respond to our letter,” she said in an email.

Officials said it’s possible contamination isn’t from firefighting foam. Both PFOA and PFOS were used in a large variety of other things, including nonstick pans, carpet protecting spray and food wrappers. Nearly everyone has the chemicals in their blood, according to Barbara Morrissey, a toxicologist with Office of Environmental Public Health Sciences of the state Department of Health.

Still, it’s relatively rare for the compounds to be present in drinking water. The EPA did a study of public water systems across the nation and found detectable levels present in only 4 percent; an even smaller percentage of systems tested above the advisory level, Morrissey said.

Morrissey said the department advises anyone with a well that tested above the advisory level to stop drinking well water. Still, she explained that the advisory level was set very low as a worst-case scenario, assumes that someone is consuming the same level of the chemical over a lifetime and is based on the water consumption of a pregnant woman — which is larger than average.

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