Some still drinking bottled water

A glass of water from a private drinking well overlooks a harbor in Atlantic where a U.S. Navy sampling program has been testing for the presence of chemicals in private drinking water wells. (Dylan Ray photo)

ATLANTIC — The U.S. Navy is moving forward with the investigative phase of a well water sampling program that found potentially dangerous levels of chemicals in the drinking water of at least two residential wells in the area surrounding Marine Corps Outlying Landing Field Atlantic.

The Navy began the voluntary sampling program near the end of 2017 to test for the presence of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water. Officials are interested in two PFAS chemicals in particular – perfluorooctane sulfante (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – that may have been used in a firefighting agent known as aqueous film forming foam in past Navy activities near the base.

Gunnery Sgt. Robert White with the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point communication strategy and operations office, said as of December, 269 wells have been sampled. Of those, several were found to have trace amounts of the chemicals, and two wells contained concentrations of PFAS exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory standard of 70 parts per trillion.

One of those wells belongs to Atlantic resident Phillip Mason, who said Wednesday it has been about a year since he initially found out about the chemicals in his well. The Navy has been providing him bottled water to drink and cook with, though he still uses his well water to shower.

“It’s getting real old, to be honest, it’s getting aggravating,” he said Wednesday. “It’s been about a year and I can’t drink or cook with my water.”

Mr. Mason, who lives with his wife, Kendra, and their oldest son, said he receives shipments of five cases of bottled water every two weeks. He does not know how much longer the arrangement will last, as he said he has had little communication with Navy officials since last year.

“Nothing has really changed since last year, as far as any contact or anything else,” he said. “…I have a few numbers I could call, but as far as them reaching out, I haven’t heard a thing from them.”

Gunnery Sgt. White said the Navy will continue sending affected residents bottled water through the ongoing investigation into a potential link between the presence of PFAS chemicals and past Navy activities near the airfield.

“The next step in the investigation process will be site investigation field work at our property on Marine Corps Outlying Landing Field Atlantic at various locations based on historical areas of potential use beginning (in late March or early April) 2019,” he said in a recent email to the News-Times.

Navy officials have previously said their records do not show evidence that the firefighting foam was used at MCOLF Atlantic, but that the well testing program is being conducted at Navy installations across the country out of “an abundance of caution.”

According to information on the website go.usa.gov/xR6SX, which the Navy set up to detail the well sampling program, the investigation will include interviews, record checks and other actions to point toward the possible use of the foam at MCOLF Atlantic. From there, the Navy will seek to determine if there is a connection between the potential use on the airfield and the exceedances found in the community.

“We are still in the very early phases of the investigation, seeking evidence of possible use of AFFF on the airfield. Although the initial drinking water tests on the airfield showed no contamination from these substances, we will conduct further testing on the airfield using a systematic testing pattern, as well as tests at potential sites if there are any identified during the investigation,” the website states.

The Navy identified 661 parcels containing an estimated 451 households and businesses within a 1-mile radius of MCOLF Atlantic. Officials extended the deadline to sign up for testing multiple times in order to sample as many wells in the area as possible.

The EPA has recently taken a renewed interest in the potential long-term effects of exposure to PFAS. On Thursday, the agency announced it would move ahead with a process that could lead to setting a safety threshold for the chemicals.

PFAS are found in a number of consumer products, from nonstick cookware, to stain-resistant carpet and fabrics, to food packaging such as microwavable popcorn bags. Although the chemicals have largely been phased out by manufacturers in the U.S., they often persist in the environment for decades and have been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to decreased fertility.

According to The Associated Press, by the end of this year, the EPA will “propose a regulatory determination” for the chemicals, the next step toward establishing limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in Philadelphia, Penn., as he released the agency’s policy for dealing with the substances.

The EPA has faced criticism from lawmakers in both major political parties as an increasing number of states have discovered PFAS in public water systems and private wells. Environmentalists have also criticized the agency, saying it has not acted fast enough.

“We are moving forward with several important actions, including the maximum contaminant level process, that will help affected communities better monitor, detect and address PFAS,” Mr. Wheeler said.

The EPA also is moving toward listing PFOA and PFOS, the two most common forms of PFAS and the same ones the Navy is investigating, as hazardous substances and will issue interim groundwater cleanup recommendations for contaminated sites, Mr. Wheeler said. The agency will propose adding PFAS chemicals to a drinking water monitoring program and develop new methods for detecting them in water, soil and groundwater.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., praised the EPA for taking steps to address PFAS in the environment. He has previously urged the EPA to take action on water contamination, especially in light of the high-profile case of one variety of PFAS, known as Gen X, which has been found in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.

“I’m glad the EPA listened to the concerns raised by communities and state regulators across the country, including those in North Carolina, regarding PFAS contamination,” Sen. Tillis said. “This management plan is an important first step towards ensuring that the EPA, states, and affected communities have the necessary tools to effectively respond to and remediate PFAS contaminated areas.”

In another case of water contamination linked to the U.S. Navy, according to a Jan. 24 AP report, the department is denying thousands of claims from service members and their families who were exposed to contaminated drinking water decades ago at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that as many as 900,000 service members were potentially exposed to tainted water at the Marine base between 1953 and 1987, though PFAS are not necessarily the culprit in that case.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said at least 4,400 claims totaling $963 billion are being denied because there is no legal basis for paying them.

To find out more about the well sampling program and PFAS chemicals, visit go.usa.gov/xR6SX or secnav.navy.mil/eie/pages/pfc-pfas.aspx. For specific questions or concerns, contact the MCOLF Atlantic public affairs office at 1-877-626-5317 or email NavyAtlanticWater@usmc.mil.

Contact Elise Clouser at elise@thenewstimes.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.

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