Navy outlines plan to test private drinking wells around base for chemicals

Groton — As a first step in investigating the potential exposure from chemicals found in firefighting foam, the Navy outlined to the public on Tuesday its request to sample drinking wells in certain areas around the Naval Submarine Base.

The Navy plans to test the drinking water to ensure it doesn't contain levels of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, above the advisory levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Capt. Todd Moore, commanding officer of the base. PFAS are long lasting and can cause adverse health effects in humans if they accumulate at certain levels in the body, according to the EPA.

"This is to ensure our neighbors are not drinking water containing PFAS above the EPA lifetime health advisory level," Moore said at a news conference prior to a public meeting Tuesday. "The Navy will take immediate action if any of this private drinking water well sampling exceeds the health advisory levels for PFAS."

In 2016, the EPA set "lifetime health advisory levels" for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)," the Navy said in a news release.

The Naval Submarine Base is the next in line in the Navy's nationwide program to conduct reviews of installations and assess potential exposure from PFAS, said Chris Zendan, spokesperson for the base. The Navy said it is working with the EPA, state Department of Public Health, and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on the assessment.

The Navy said it has found 15 "potential PFAS release areas." Two are off the base: the location of the SUBASE New London Fire Station 2 and the site of two controlled burns on Jackson Drive.

Based on records and interviews, the Navy had identified areas where the Navy used firefighting foam, for example responding to a vehicle collision or holding a training event, even decades earlier, Moore said.

"The most common Navy activity that could have resulted in the historical release of PFOA, PFOS, and other PFAS to the environment is the use of firefighting foam (specifically aqueous film forming foam or AFFF) for testing, training, firefighting and other life-saving emergency responses," according to a fact sheet.

The Navy has contacted property owners of the two off-base areas identified for sampling, which include an estimated three wells, but held a public forum Tuesday afternoon and evening at the Hilton Garden Inn to inform the public about the sampling and see if there are any other concerned residents or potential wells in the area, Moore said.

The Navy is focused first on sampling of private drinking water wells off base. The drinking water on the base and in privatized Navy housing is supplied by Groton Utilities, Moore said. Groton Utilities water has been tested in the past for PFAS and no issues have been found.

Based on the results of the testing of private wells, the Navy then will determine the direction it needs to go in to further investigate potential contamination levels on the base.

Moore said that if contamination is found in the well water, the Navy would immediately provide drinking water and, next, would continue sampling to identify the source. The next steps may include determining the extent and level of contamination at the source sites identified to ensure they are not a continuing source of exposure to the surrounding community.

The EPA cited studies "that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals."

Sharee Rusnak, health assessor in the toxic hazards program of the state Department of Public Health, said PFAS can affect the thyroid, liver, and potentially cholesterol levels, among other health effects, and at higher levels, is linked to testicular cancer or kidney cancer and can have effects on sensitive populations like children and infants.

But she emphasized that those are chronic, long-term effects caused by daily exposure. She said there is uncertainty and safety factors built into the EPA's advisory level, so even if people are exposed to a level above that, it doesn't mean they would necessarily see those effects.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is investigating alternatives to AFFF that don't contain PFAS and the Navy is committed to reducing levels of PFAS, Moore said. But he said there's "a balancing act," as the DOD has a responsibility to ensure the Navy has adequate firefighting capabilities, especially for highly hazardous blazes.

He said that if there is any use of AFFF at the scene of a fire — typically used in scenarios when there are burning liquids — then the Navy would take precautions to safeguard the environment and immediately seek to contain the spread of PFAS.

Residents and officials attended the forum, where representatives from the Navy, EPA, state Department of Public Health, and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection provided information and answered questions.

Groton resident Karen Devirgilio, who lives with her daughter and two grandchildren just outside of the area being tested, said she received a flyer in the mail that informed her she wasn't in the testing area, but she saw on the map that she was close by.

While researching PFAS, she found a report about PFAS contamination from a naval base on the West Coast and its effect on home values and then learned about the health issues from exposure to high levels of PFAS.

She said she's not expecting anything to happen, but it's something to be aware of, as her 3-year-old grandson and 7-year-old granddaughter live in the house.

"I’m going to keep an eye on it," she said, and plans to check on the results and if high levels of PFAS are found in the drinking wells in the area, then she wants to make sure her well is sampled, too.

k.drelich@theday.com

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