Pollution investigators have found toxic compounds in groundwater below the Delaware Air National Guard base matching those that prompted shutdowns this summer of the city of New Castle’s entire three-well public supply network and two Artesian Water Co. wells.
Although levels of perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, detected at the base were up to 40 times higher than recommended drinking water limits and up to triple those found in public supplies, officials cautioned that the search is continuing and has yet to label the Guard facility as the source of the problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which is helping to lead the New Castle investigation, declared PFCs an emerging drinking water contaminant in 2009, and as a potential carcinogen. Regulators set a drinking water safety guidance limit of 0.2 parts per billion of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and 0.4 ppb for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Levels found in the public wells ranged as high as 2.3 ppb for PFOS in New Castle’s wells, and as high as 1.8 ppb in Artesian’s water two wells. All are in the vicinity of the Basin Road and Frenchtown Road intersection near William Penn High School.
One sample from a well on the Guard base, which is generally upstream from groundwater flowing toward the New Castle wells, contained 7.9 ppb of PFOS.
PFCs have been used in a wide range of industries for stick and stain-resistant features and other product characteristics, from fast-food packaging to cookware, electronics, coatings and pesticides. For decades, they also were among the contents of widely used aqueous film-forming foams used by military and civilian fire-fighters.
Both New Castle and Artesian cut off use of the five wells involved when the chemicals turned up. New Castle currently supplies its 2,800 customers from a connection with Artesian’s larger and unaffected treated-water network.
“We absolutely share the concern,” said Lt. Col. Len Gratteri, Delaware Air National Guard public affairs officer. “We’re working with the EPA, we’re working with DNREC and the National Guard Bureau. We want to find out if there’s a problem and, if there is, how can we fix it.”
“This is our home. We live here, so we have the same concerns as everyone else,” Gratteri said.
Local officials are aware of the results, Gratteri said, adding that the findings involved a small sample.
Information was not immediately available from the EPA, which is providing support from the federal “Superfund” cleanup and response program for the investigation.
Although the Air Force has acknowledged that firefighting foam uses may have contaminated groundwater at more than 100 bases, officials have yet to elaborate.
“That’s not something we use on a daily basis, or even frequently,” Gratteri said.
Other studies are under way around the civilian New Castle Airport and at private well users nearby.
New Castle officials recently estimated that short- and long-range costs for treating its water for PFCs could top $1 million. A temporary carbon filtration unit is in production and expected to cost about $70,000 for eight months, according to Jay Guyer, water supervisor for New Castle’s Municipal Services Commission.
Design work is under way for a permanent system Guyer said. He added that the city is still exploring financing options and reimbursement prospects.
“We’ve looked at several different options as far as grants and state loans,” Guyer said. “If they could identify a source of the contamination and if someone was held liable for that, yes, we would try to seek some type of reimbursement.”
PFCs are so durable and their uses so widespread that they are believed present at low levels around the world and throughout global human and wildlife populations, including albatrosses and elephant seals in the Antarctic.
A 2012 report released by the Delaware River Basin Commission found PFOAs in river water just south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge at nearly 20 percent of the EPA’s recommended limit for drinking water, although concentrations appear to be falling. The same compounds also turned up in tissues of fish taken from the Delaware.
In late August, the EPA participated in a public meeting on a similar PFC water pollution concern in the Warminster and Horsham, Pennsylvania, area after detections of chemicals traced to fire-fighting foam use at the former Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster. The same issues surfaced earlier this year at the closed Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. In Michigan, PFCs were found in fish tissues near the closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base at nearly 50 times the EPA’s drinking water limit
Thousands of South Jersey residents, meanwhile, have received or turned to bottled water because of concern over water contamination traced to leaks and spills from industrial sources, particularly in Salem and Gloucester counties
Contact Jeff Montgomery at (302) 463-3344 or firstname.lastname@example.org