The Navy wants residents using drinking wells in two areas near Naval Air Station Jacksonville to have their groundwater tested. That’s two years after a federal health advisory was issued for certain chemicals used during firefighting training on the base.
Around 3,000 warning letters have been sent to area residents.
“I want to make sure that the residents that are around NAS Jacksonville understand and know that the Navy and NAS Jacksonville is dedicated to being involved, being engaged to see this issue resolved,” NAS Jacksonville Commander Capt. Michael Connor said at a Thursday open house presentation for residents held at an Orange Park hotel.
The Naval Facilities Engineering Command, or NAVFAC, began testing NAS Jacksonville after the U.S. Department of Defense put the base on a national list of 36 contaminated military installations in March. When initial base tests came back toxic, officials moved to check the surrounding neighborhoods.
Connor said base officials didn’t know about the possible contamination until the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a “lifetime health advisory” in 2016 for the class of synthetic chemical compounds called per- and poly-flouroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
In the advisory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EPA labeled PFAS as an “emerging contaminant” that’s been linked to a range of ailments, including multiple types of cancer.
“We are aware of the concern for these chemicals because of the EPA’s lifetime health advisory,” Capt. Connor said.
PFAS, most commonly used in the linings of non-stick cooking pans and in special foam to fight fires, have been manufactured in the U.S. for around 80 years, and there are thousands of variations.
NAS Jacksonville said it used a large amount of one compound in its aircraft and ship firefighting training program until it was discontinued at the base in 2003. Because the chemical can’t easily be cleaned, a high concentration still sits in an NAS “holding pond” — the same pond, which, for the past 22 years, the base has been filtering and sending to nearby Timuquana Country Club for irrigating its golf course.
Navy officials have identified 24 private wells so far that may have been affected; 12 have already been tested. The results of those won’t be available for weeks.
NAVFAC’s Adrienne Wilson said nine more wells and the golf course are scheduled to be tested next week. If drinking water shows unacceptable levels of PFAS, residents will get an alternative water source on the federal government’s dime.
“Within 24 hours of being notified of those levels we’ll get bottled water to them … an alternate source of water and we will continue to do that until we reach a permanent solution,” she said.
But, Wilson added a long-term solution will be hard to come by — residents would either need to dig deeper wells that avoid gathering groundwater or to hook into the central utility, JEA.
“I wouldn’t say ‘concerned,’ but we don’t know. So, until we sample those wells and find out some information, we’ll find out from there,” she said.
Navy veteran Thomas McCallum, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said, “I’d like to have known about the advisory when I was using it on active duty from the late 80s for the firefighting training, but now you find out 20 years [later] the different chemicals that — ‘Hey, surprise!””
McCallum has a well, but he lives just outside the Navy’s areas of concern and said he only uses it to water his lawn. He said he’s not all that worried about his home’s drinking water or even his time spent around the firefighting chemicals now found to cause a host of ailments.
What worries McCallum is the time he spent on base in Mayport and Norfolk, Virginia, drinking water that may have been poisoned with PFAS.
“How much of the underground water is affected? Is it just limited to the areas? Or is it spread out to [a] 5- or 10-mile radius? Did it get contaminated in the St. Johns River and the following creeks surrounding the base?” he said.
A representative from JEA said the utility has tested its water and customers in the area have nothing to worry about.
Between the late nineties and early 2000s, lawsuits, settlements and voluntary halts to production effectively phased out two older, more toxic versions of the compounds. The federal Environmental Protection Agency advisory only pertains to those, not the more contemporary formulas which are still being produced, reports the Associated Press.
Manufacturers of newer PFAS products are reassuring people that recent innovations have made the compound much less hazardous for humans.
"As an industry today ... we're very forthcoming, meeting any kind of regulatory requirement to disclose any kind of adverse data," American Chemistry Council trade group director Jessica Bowman told the AP this week.
But toxic levels of the discontinued PFAS can persist for thousands of years, leading public health experts to refer to the compounds as “forever chemicals.” Although the EPA isn’t currently regulating the substances, the agency this summer has held public meetings in the country’s most affected areas.
At the Jacksonville open house, EPA project manager Pete Dao said the agency isn’t disputing that the chemicals present a very real health risk, but in order to be in danger someone would need to regularly ingest little amounts of the chemical over a long period of time or be exposed to high levels all at once.
“The advisory number is based on a lifetime of exposure, and that number is developed when we see a chemical’s having potential health effects in people,” he said. “The majority of the information is based on testing on animals, and some of it is based on epidemiological studies.”
Still, the EPA’s 2016 recommendations may not be enough to keep people safe. In a study completed earlier this year, federal toxicologists found the advisory levels were still too high for human safety. Politico reported in May the Trump Administration tried to shield that report from the public.
The EPA is currently drafting a national management plan for PFAS compounds by the end of the year, but there’s no firm deadline for it to be completed and no guarantee that new regulations will be established.
Meanwhile, NAS Jacksonville officials said this is just the preliminary phase in their investigation and more records reviews, resident interviews and water testing is needed.