By Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times
OAK HARBOR, Island County — For decades, cows on the Christensen farm sauntered across the pasture to quench their thirst at a creek that carries storm-water runoff from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
In October 2018, the Navy disclosed the water contained trace amounts of toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used on the base during aviation accidents and training.
Brian Christensen feared harm to the cattle. So he fenced off the shoreline and installed a metal trough to hold water piped in from another area.
He’s still worried. The channel called Clover Valley Creek frequently floods, depositing sediments and possibly chemical contaminants on some of the farm’s low-lying acreage used for grazing and crops. And downstream, the pollution makes its way into Puget Sound’s Dugualla Bay, a rearing area for young chinook salmon.
“We don’t know what this is doing” Christensen said. “And that’s a big problem.”
The chemicals — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — have emerged as a pervasive pollution problem, one that for decades largely escaped regulatory scrutiny.
There are more than 4,700 compounds, found in products ranging from carpet to food wrappers to dental floss. And, since being introduced in the mid-20th century, they have made their way into public waterways and seeped underground into drinking-water wells, including some spots on Whidbey Island.
For Christensen and other residents along the creek, surface-water pollution also is now a concern.
Scientists are trying to better define the health risks the chemicals pose and at what levels, which is a key question since a survey indicates they are present in the blood serums of 98 percent of Americans. Meanwhile, federal and state officials seek to determine the scope of the pollution, and what to do about it, a task made more difficult since Congress has not listed PFAS as pollutants under the federal Clean Water Act or designated them as hazardous under the federal Superfund program.
This year, Christensen hoped the creek’s PFAS pollution would be targeted for cleanup in a new federal storm-water discharge permit. But the draft permit, when released this fall by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made no mention of storm-water tainted by the chemicals.
One reason appears to be a communication breakdown within the EPA.
In 2018, EPA officials in Seattle received the Navy test results showing creek contamination. But they did not forward the information to agency staff who developed the draft permit, according to Bill Dunbar, a spokesman for the EPA regional office.
Now, EPA officials are considering reworking the permit to address PFAS pollution. But EPA officials have a limited ability to regulate PFAS under this permit. So it remains unclear what changes might be made in the Navy permit.
“After EPA evaluates all comments and all additional information, we will determine whether we should change the permit,” Dunbar said.
Michael Welding, spokesman for the naval station, said the Navy contracted for more than $600,000 of work to reduce PFAS pollution in the runoff, and will comply with any new requirements in the EPA storm-water permit.
Firefighting foams used to combat aircraft fuel-based blazes at the air station and many other military installations, have been a major source of PFAS pollution. Defense Department investigations have found PFAS chemicals migrated into ground and surface water at 400 current and former military installations, including Whidbey Island.
Welding said firefighters no longer train with PFAS foams but still have one type that can be used in fires.
Many firefighting organizations now use alternative foams. This year, the U.S. House and Senate, in Defense appropriations bills, approved a phaseout of the military’s use of foams containing PFAS. But other provisions to vest the EPA with more regulatory power over the chemicals appear to have been dropped from consideration, according to Scott Faber, with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
Action on drinking water
The biggest regulatory effort, to date, has focused on drinking-water pollution from two of the PFAS firefighting-foam chemicals, which already have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers amid mounting concerns.
These chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — may increase the risk for kidney cancer, immune-system disorders and other health problems, including impaired learning development of infants, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. As of yet, there is no regulatory consensus in the United States on what constitutes a safe amount of these two PFAS chemicals in drinking water and there are no federal standards to require a cleanup of drinking water.
The EPA has an “advisory guideline” to alert people to levels that could create health risks if they drink contaminated water over their entire lifetime. The guideline for PFOA and PFOs combined is 70 parts per trillion. On Whidbey Island, Navy-contracted testing has found 15 wells with levels above that guideline. The Navy has provided bottled or taken other measures — such as filtration system for Coupeville — to assist those well owners.
Last month, the state Department of Health, after extensive reviews of health literature, called for drinking water “action levels” much lower than the EPA advisory guideline. The state draft document calls for 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and 15 parts per trillion for PFOS, and also set levels for three other PFAS chemicals.
State officials say the draft document, still subject to changes, could be approved sometime next year. It would require suppliers of public water to test for these chemicals and to notify customers if the limits were exceeded.
At Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the PFAS storm-water pollution was discovered when a distinctive odor indicating firefighting foam wafted out of a manhole, according to Welding. This prompted the Navy to test discharges into Clover Valley Creek, which flows through the base, then for about a mile through federal and private property that includes Christensen’s farm. The dredged waterway ends in a diked lagoon, where pumps send flows into Puget Sound.
Welding said the Navy is working to reduce PFAS pollution through repairs to section of a storm drain.
But the chemicals continue to pollute the creek. The Navy during the past year tested the waterway monthly, and posted the results online in October. PFOA and PFOS levels combined ranged as high as 171.7 parts per trillion, and three other PFAS chemicals were present.
“This has been an ongoing problem. The EPA needs to recognize this pollution, and let people know what they are going to do about it,” said Richard Abraham, a Whidbey Island resident who has been investigating PFAS pollution and reached out to the EPA about the test results.
For Christensen, the PFAS pollution has added a new uncertainty to the family farming operation, which he returned to a decade ago after leaving behind a tech career in Seattle.
He raises pigs, goats and chickens, leases acreage for cattle grazing, and grows barley. Much of the farming is on land frequently flooded by the creek, and he wants assurances from regulators that the food that comes off this land is safe to eat.
He also wants the Navy to pay for putting the new water system in his pasture.
“They’ve done the damage. They should fix the damage, and prevent more,” Christensen said.