Wells on Whidbey to be tested for toxic firefighting foam

OAK HARBOR — The Navy will test wells on Whidbey Island to see if drinking water is contaminated with potentially hazardous chemicals used in firefighting foam.

Wells within a mile radius of sites at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field Base and Outlying Field Coupeville will be tested in the next month, base Public Affairs Officer Mike Welding confirmed.

Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman said it’s likely Coupeville’s primary well, located near OLF Coupeville, will be among those tested.

The tests, which will be free to residents, will look for perfluoroalkyl substances, which are also known as PFASs. They are considered “emerging contaminants” because they may affect human health or the environment but haven’t been commonly monitored in the past.

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued lifetime health advisory levels on two “long-chain” PFASs, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, at 70 parts per trillion, individually and combined. Both of these chemicals were in “aqueous film forming foams,” or AFFFs, a synthetic firefighting foam, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Welding explained that the foam is the most effective way to put out the petroleum-based fires that occur in aircraft accidents.

The foam was used at the fire training area at NAS Whidbey and possibly on runways.

Sheila Murray, public affairs officer for Navy Region Northwest, wouldn’t say what testing has already been done or what the results were, how many wells will be tested or whether the wells being tested include those that belong to Coupeville or the city of Oak Harbor. The Navy will be meeting with cooperating agencies to iron out final details of the investigation, she wrote in an email.

David Einan of the Environmental Protection Agency, however, explained that a test of a well on base found “very high” levels of the contaminants. The well isn’t used for drinking water, he said, but the result spurred the Navy to begin testing surrounding wells right away.

Einan said 40 to 50 wells will be tested on North Whidbey alone.

“Just because the Navy is doing this very large program doesn’t necessarily translate that there’s a very big risk,” he cautioned, adding that the Navy is being proactive by directly testing wells instead of indirect studies and models.

In June, the Navy issued a nationwide policy to identify areas where the materials were potentially released. Contaminated wells have already been found at Mountain Home Air Fore Base in Idaho.

The Navy will provide alternate drinking water, typically bottled water, for residents if the chemicals in the water are found to exceed the EPA lifetime health advisory levels, the Navy reported.

The long-chain PFASs might be linked to increased cancer risk, development problems in children and fetuses, and immune and reproductive concerns, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Studies to this point have not been conclusive.

PFASs are used in a wide range of manufacturing and industrial applications because they aid with resistance to fire, oil and stains, as well as a water repellent.

Long-chain PFASs are persistent in the environment, bioaccumulate in animals, and are toxic to laboratory animals, the EPA reports.

The Navy has no reason to believe the chemicals are present at Outlying Field Coupeville, Welding said, but wells in the area will be tested “out of an abundance of caution.”

The Navy will hold public meetings to keep the community informed and will contact well owners in the sample area, according to a Navy press release. Public meetings will be in Oak Harbor and Coupeville for people to share their concerns and ask questions of public health experts.

“The Navy is committed to sharing additional information as it becomes available throughout the testing process,” the Navy reported.

While county and EPA officials said the Navy has moved quickly on the issue, North Whidbey resident Shannon Stone said she is skeptical. She has been worried about possible chemicals in her drinking water for years and said the concern goes beyond the PFASs.

She said she stopped drinking her tap water after realizing that her community well is within 2,000 feet of one of several Superfund sites on Navy property. It’s also close enough to the base to be one of those tested.

Stone said she learned about the PFASs issue at a meeting in August — as well as a separate threat of spreading contamination — and was alarmed to learn that the Navy wasn’t immediately doing more to notify the community. She’s been studying the Navy’s pollution problems on Whidbey for years.

“My head explodes with this information,” she said. “I do not like knowing this.”

More information about the Navy’s PFAS initiative and drinking water testing program may be found at www.secnav.navy.mil/eie/pages/pfc-pfas.aspx.

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