Testing for firefighting chemicals in wells and waterways 2019-01-18

Those firefighting chemicals that leaked from Moody Air Force Base are on the front page of the Valdosta Daily Times today:

Moody recommends private well owners contact their county representatives for information on testing personal wells.

Paige Dukes, Lowndes County clerk and public information officer, said this is an opportunity for county residents such as Tann to have their water tested. Not only for PFAS but for any other contaminants that might be there.

Indeed, and Lowndes County operates the Moody AFB wastewater treatment plant that spilled into Beatty Branch and Cat Creek. So it’s an opportunity for Lowndes County to help organize testing for these per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), because testing for them isn’t nearly as simple or inexpensive as testing for other contaminants.

Reporter and photographer at Beatty Branch, 2019-01-07, VDT
Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman, nearby resident Debra Tann, VDT reporter Thomas Lynn and photographer Derrek Vaughn, at Beatty Branch, January 7, 2019. Photo: John S. Quarterman for WWALS.

Debra Tann and I were back at Beatty Branch on January 7, 2019, this time with the VDT, about the firefighting chemical issue that was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the first week of January. This time it was for local reporters. Moody neighbor wants water tested, Thomas Lynn, Valdosta Daily Times, 18 January 2018,

Front Page, VDT
Debra Tann and John Quarterman look at the site where water runs off from Moody Air Force Base. Photo: Derrek Vaughn, The Valdosta Daily Times.

VALDOSTA — When Debra Tann learned Moody Air Force Base had been washing dangerous chemicals down the drain for more than 40 years, she was understandably concerned.

The Lowndes County resident has lived less than two miles from the base for 24 years and wants to know if her water is safe.

In May 2018, Moody released a report stating the base’s water was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, but Tann wanted to know if residents living near the base shared the same diagnosis.

“I want residents near the base to be equally confident their water is not hazardous,” Tann said. “Residents need to know if their water is contaminated or not.”

Fears of water contamination, both inside and outside of Moody, began after the release of a study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016.

A copy of that report is is on the WWALS website. For the original Air Force source, scroll to the bottom of the previous post.

A Nationwide Problem

The VDT notes:

The report states military bases across the country used compounds known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) in fire extinguishing foam since the 1970s.

Indeed, this is not just a Moody AFB problem. And not just an Air Force problem.

U.S., Map
Map: TOXIC FLUORINATED CHEMICALS IN TAP WATER AND AT INDUSTRIAL OR MILITARY SITES, by EWG.

The VDT story continues with quotes from Kevin Chambers of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) who said that these PFASs are emerging substances. That just means we didn’t know until recently that they were health problems, even though PFASs have been widely used for decades.

The VDT notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Division in May 2016 issued a health advisory saying 70 parts per trillion was too much for drinking water.

Exposure and Health Effects, EPA
U.S. EPA: Health Effects, in PFAS, What You Need to Know.

Here is EPA’s web page on that and other PFAS health advisories and fact sheets. Here is an excerpt from that EPA health advisory:

PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances. They were used to make carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and other materials (e.g., cookware) that are resistant to water, grease or stains. They are also used for firefighting at airfields and in a number of industrial processes. Both PFOA and PFOS are persistent in the environment and in the human body. Over time both chemicals have become widely distributed in the environment and have accumulated in the blood of humans, wildlife, and fish. Studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breast-fed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).

It’s also not even just traditional PFASs. About a decade ago, replacement chemicals for PFOA, known as GenX started to be used. Then EPA found that GenX turns out to be nearly as toxic as PFASs.

What are PFAS and GenX?, EPA
U.S. EPA: What are PFAS and GenX? in PFAS, What You Need to Know.

The VDT story contains an important point from GA-EPD’s Kevin Chambers:

He said the chemicals do not degrade under typical environmental conditions and are extremely persistent in the environment.

So nevermind that Moody AFB report was from 2016: the chemicals are probably still around. And if they’re in groundwater, as Moody’s own report said they were, they have probably been travelling underground all this time. How far and to where, nobody knows. Testing is needed.

[Figure 26 Waste Water Treatment Plant (AFFF Area 8) PFBS, PFOA, and PFOS in Groundwater and Surface Water]
Figure 26 Waste Water Treatment Plant (AFFF Area 8) PFBS, PFOA, and PFOS in Groundwater and Surface Water

Test is not easy

For many chemicals, the obvious place to turn to for water well testing is the University of Georgia (UGA) Cooperative Extension Service. A few years ago they helped test wells for arsenic, and the form for that and lead is W3CC Water Submission Form, Private Well Chemical Test (Recommended by the Georgia Department of Public Health). That test costs $122 per sample. The Georgia Department of Health (DPH) and WWALS continue to recommend that test. Contact the Lowndes County UGA Extension Office, 2102 East Hill Avenue Valdosta, GA 31601, uge4185@uga.edu, 229-333-5185.

But testing for PFASs is not so easy. County Agent Jake Price checked all the way to UGA Athens, and UGA Extension does not do PFAS testing.

I asked Kyle Coppage at DPH South Health District, who referred me to Frank Sanchez, Director, DPH Chemical Hazards Program, who says that only a very few companies in the U.S. do such testing. Two of them are Eurofins and Test America (also recommended by Jake Price). Cape Fear Riverkeeper says there’s also Parsons.

Sanchez of DPH says the test to do is EPA Method 537.1.1.

Test America confirms they do such testing. It costs $325 per test, but they don’t do it on a retail basis, as in you can’t just have your individual well tested directly with them. Normally they work though environmental testing firms, because you can’t just put water in a bottle and send it to them. The test water collection has to be done by someone wearing only certain types of clothes and gloves, with no cologne or perfume, because PFASs are in numerous clothing materials, especially water-repellant fabrics, not to mention fast food wrappers and nonstick cookware.

As both Frank Sanchez of DPH and David Fuller of Test America told me, there is probably not any individual in the U.S. who does not already have PFASs in their body. It’s everywhere, from the artic to Antarctica. Yes, polar bears have been found with PFASs.

However, that does not mean anybody needs to drink or eat any more of these chemicals. You can even absorb them through your skin. Eating contaminated fish could also be an avenue. So testing is needed.

That EPA factsheet shown above says EPA has provided assistance to 10 states, including to In Upstate NY village of Hoosick Falls, a trail of cancer leads to tap water, AP, 26 Jan 2016.

Also U.S. EPA assisted Cape Fear, NC. Dana Sargent, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, aka Cape Fear Riverwatch, is sending useful information and contacts, and she says U.S. EPA did help, after public outcry, with testing that was paid for by the polluting company, in their case Chemours. Here is some testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives. See also Cape Fear River Watch Sues Chemours Over GenX, Other Substances, Northeastern Univesity, from WilmingtonBiz, Cece Nunn, 29 August 2018.

In July, the Southern Environmental Law Center announced that it had filed a lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, claiming the state agency should use its authority to require Chemours to immediately stop all emissions and discharges of GenX and other related compounds.

Wilmington, Delaware-based Chemours shared plans earlier this year to make an investment of $100 million into the Fayetteville Works facility in a long-term effort to reduce emissions of GenX and other related compounds.

So previous pressure apparently got the polluting company to do something about emission reductions, but not enough, and eventually Cape Fear River Watch sued. Let’s hope attorneys are not required hereabouts.

Filtering

What can you do if tests do show PFAS in your drinking water? Florida health officials delayed notifying residents about tainted water, emails show, Samantha J. Gross and Elizabeth Koh, Miami Herald, 3 January 2019,

Mark Lander, the head of the Marion County Department of Health… gave them a couple of cases of water and told them to drink only bottled for the foreseeable future before he disappeared back into the night.

That’s one approach. I’m also told by Sanchez and Fuller that activated charcoal filtration can remove at least some PFASs from your water, if you are careful to change the filters.

According to the Miami Times, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) installed filters for some wells after the Marion County, Florida, Department of Health tested for PFASs from that the Ocala Fire College.

Suwannee River Basin, Map
Map: TOXIC FLUORINATED CHEMICALS IN TAP WATER AND AT INDUSTRIAL OR MILITARY SITES, by EWG. Ocala is the big blue circle at the bottom of this detail map. Moody AFB is the red dot towards the top left.

Federal Laws

Moody AFB has been quite clear that they did not test private wells, because there are no legal requirements for them to do so. According to U.S. EPA, there are some PFAS Laws and Regulations. Obviously they do not go far enough.

The Ocala situation is bad enough to get the attention of a member of Congress from another Florida district: Wasserman Schultz calls for more federal regulation after dirty Ocala water makes news, Samantha J. Gross, Miami Herald, 8 January 2018.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz called out to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Attorney General’s office Tuesday, requesting they establish a proper system for regulating, monitoring and notifying people of water contamination in their area.

The Weston Democrat expressed her concern through a two-page letter to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, detailing the toxicity of chemicals in flame retardants — and found in the water supply of some unknowing Floridians.

I’m not sure where she’s been, since there are already a pair of bills in Congress, for detection and cleanup.

“Bill seeks $50 million to identify PFAS in U.S.”, Paula Gadner, mlive, Updated Dec 12; Posted Dec 12.

“Congress to weigh bill making PFAS eligible for federal cleanup funding”, Paula Gardner, mlive.com, Updated Jan 15; Posted Jan 15,

““Michigan has been hit hard by PFAS,” said co-author U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat representing the 12th District west of Detroit, in a statement. “.. It’s been found in our drinking water, air, food, and consumer products. Our bipartisan legislation will list all PFAS as the hazardous chemicals we know they are and give the EPA the tools it needs to clean up contaminated sites.”

She’s joined in the proposed legislation by U S. Reps. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from the 5th District, and Fred Upton, a Republican from the 6th District. Kildee represents Oscoda, home to the contaminated former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, and Flint, where investigations continue into the spread of PFAS from the former GM Buick City factory site. Upton represents the Parchment community, where state officials closed a municipal water system due to PFAS.”

US lawmakers’ bill would trigger cleanup of PFAS; Legislation would designate all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous, Cheryl Hogue, Chemical & Engineering News, JANUARY 15, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 3.

Similar bills were tried last year, S. 3382 (detection) and S. 3381 (accountability).

It’s time to get them passed. You can call your members of Congress.

Department of Defense

What about the source of these particular Moody AFB contaminants? $10M in funding delivered for PFAS study, Jeff McMenemy, Seacoastonline, (also PFAS Project), 10 Sep 2018,

The Department of Defense has transferred $10 million to a federal agency so it can move forward with the first national health impact study on people exposed to PFAS chemicals in their water, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen announced Monday.

The DOD transferred the money to the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for the study Shaheen established in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also secured authorization to fund the study that the ATSDR will be conducting.

That’s not much for the entire country, but it does establish that DoD can provide funding to deal with a problem that emanates from its bases, among other sources.

DoD will be more likely to do this if Congress demands it.

State Laws

Speaking of Michigan, FISCAL BRIEF: STATE FUNDING TO ADDRESS PFAS CONTAMINATION, Austin Scott and Susan Frey, Michigan House of Representatives, 27 November 2018,

State funding to respond to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) environmental contamination in Michigan was first appropriated by the legislature in December 2017 in the amount of $23.2 million GF/GP. In the current fiscal year, FY 2018-19, $8.0 million GF/GP is appropriated for PFAS response activities, with additional funding available which may be expended for PFAS or other similar purposes. The Governor requested an additional $43.1 million GF/GP and $15.0 million in proposed fee revenue in Supplemental Request 2019-1. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) administer PFAS funding and programs.

Cape Fear River Watch tells me the state of North Carolina also provided some PFAS funding.

Georgia (and Florida) could also do this.

Sampling

Meanwhile, in Georgia, GA-EPD says it’s not their problem; talk to DPH. Frank Sanchez of DPH says his group would like to help, but they have no funding to do so. Also, DPH does not normally do sampling; DPH uses data generated by EPA or GA-EPD. He has also worked with other Riverkeepers to get sample data. Suwannee Riverkeeper is discussing further with Sanchez of DPH.

What about Lowndes County? Back to the VDT article:

There are businesses in the community that can perform a number of tests to see if a resident’s water is safe or not.

The tests, however, would have to be done on the resident’s dime and would not be paid for by the county.

“This is about empowering (people concerned about their water),” Dukes said. “Go ahead and do something about it. Have your water tested if you have concerns.”

Seems like it’s an opportunity for Lowndes County to empower itself to help its own citizens. Lowndes County has been in charge of Moody AFB’s Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant since October 3, 2016. Moody finalizes DOD initiative, By Airman 1st Class Janiqua P. Robinson, 23d Wing Public Affairs / Published October 05, 2016,

Moody AFB trickling fliter at wastewater plant
A trickling filter rotates during a ceremony, Oct. 3, 2016, in Valdosta, Ga. The trickling filter processes and treats wastewater that comes into the Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Janiqua P. Robinson)

Moody Air Force Base celebrated during a historical ceremony for the transfer of the Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant from a private contractor to Lowndes County, Oct. 3, in Valdosta, Ga.

It’s taken three and a half years for this project to come to fruition, but Moody is leading from the front by becoming the first base in the Department of Defense to gain approval for an inter-governmental service agreement with a municipality for a utility.

Maybe Moody AFB can lead from the front on testing private wells, waterways, and fish for PFAS chemicals, leaked from that plant, and from other locations.

Maybe Lowndes County, now in charge of that wastewater plant, can lead from the front on testing private wells, waterways, and fish.

As Lowndes County Chairman Bill Slaughter said in October 2016,

“It shows that the local, national, state and federal governments can work together and save the citizens of the United States and [local] community’s money and it’s a good day when you can see that come to the end.”

The county can save local citizens money by helping organize a group of private wells to test, thus getting a bulk rate.

For that matter, have all of Lowndes County’s own wells been tested? What about all the subdivision wells, for which the county holds trust indentitures, making the county liable to take them over if the current owners default, including by not meeting water safety requirements?

WWALS will do what it can, while looking forward to Moody AFB and Lowndes County “leading from the front.”

Sign up for testing

Meanwhile, if you want your well tested, you can sign up with this google form. WWALS will keep your information confidential. When we find out how to do this testing, we will relay your information to whichever organization will actually do the testing. You will be responsible for all costs of your tests, unless some funding source is found.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can join this fun and work by becoming a WWALS member today!

3 thoughts on “Testing for firefighting chemicals in wells and waterways 2019-01-18

  1. Tom Southern

    To me, it’s reprehensible, cowardly, and disrespectful for the air base to not come forward immediately and ask anyone who might be affected if they would like to have their water tested. And if the tests show contamination, the base should immediately pay to rectify the situation…….after all, they’re responsible.

    1. jsq Post author

      A reporter asked me if I was mad at Moody for not testing private water wells. No, because Moody AFB has all sorts of constraints on what they can do. What we need is for the federal or state government to make some laws requiring such testing, like Michigan has done. Or Lowndes County could take responsibility for that Moody AFB wastewater plant, which Lowndes County operates. -jsq

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