Navy to Begin Testing Well Water for Contaminants Near Fentress

Norfolk Naval Shipyard

The Navy will begin testing well water for contaminants within a half mile of Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field on Wednesday, although it will take about a month to determine whether chemicals from a firefighting foam that was used there for decades have affected any homes' water supplies.

The landing field is near the Virginia Beach border in a rural section of Chesapeake that is not connected to the city's water system. Fighter jets from Oceana Naval Air Station use the field to practice aircraft carrier-style landings , and from the 1950s through the 1980s the Navy routinely used a foam containing what is now considered potentially dangerous chemicals to practice extinguishing fires.

Navy officials last month discovered high levels of contaminants in its well water at the air field and told workers to stop drinking tap water until a long-term solution is available. The Navy is providing bottled water to its 50 workers at Fentress, while Chesapeake is providing a water-filling station at nearby Butts Road Intermediate School for residents who are concerned their well water may be contaminated. If nearby homes' well water is found to have high levels of the contaminants, the Navy said it would provide bottled water as a short-term fix.

It's unclear how much of a health risk the contaminants pose, although some studies have indicated there's an elevated risk for cancer in animals and damage to human liver cells and an association with thyroid disease. Other studies have shown exposure may cause elevated cholesterol levels and low birth weight in humans.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate perfluorinated compounds, the contaminants, but it considers them an "emerging contaminant" that could threaten health or the environment. The EPA is studying the contaminants to figure out whether regulations for acceptable levels are needed. The man-made chemicals are readily absorbed after oral exposure and accumulate primarily in the serum, kidney and liver, according to an EPA fact sheet. The compounds are commonly found in paints, fabric, carpets, nonstick cookware, floor wax and food packaging, among other things.

Fentress is the only Navy installation in Hampton Roads with well water that used the firefighting foam. Laboratories only recently were able to analyze samples for the contaminants, and in Virginia there are no guidelines regulating them.

Restoration of the groundwater will be addressed by the Navy Environmental Cleanup Program.

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