Navy to Pay for Water-Filter System After Chemicals Found in Wells

Sailors from various commands combat a simulated flight deck fire during a flight deck firefighting course at the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit Whidbey Island at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, May 18, 2010. (U.S. Navy photo/Nardel Gervacio)
Sailors from various commands combat a simulated flight deck fire during a flight deck firefighting course at the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit Whidbey Island at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, May 18, 2010. (U.S. Navy photo/Nardel Gervacio)

The Navy will foot the bill for a filter system to protect the Coupeville water supply from chemicals found in firefighting foam used at an airstrip near the Whidbey Island town.

The action announced Tuesday is part of a broader Defense Department effort -- in Washington and elsewhere -- to track pollution plumes from firefighting foam used at military installations and offer assistance when the chemicals have been detected in drinking-water supplies.

On Whidbey Island, the Navy will pay to design, install and operate a filter system to treat perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- or PFAS. One of these chemicals was found in a Coupeville drinking-water well at just below the 70 parts per trillion lifetime exposure guideline set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes, in a statement Tuesday, said the town well water has always been safe to drink but "the continued ability of this well to provide clean water requires additional measures to protect it from PFAS compounds."

Mike Welding, a Naval Air Station Whidbey Island spokesman, said the system's design will ensure that the chemical levels will stay below the EPA guideline limits.

PFAS have been used over the decades in a wide range of products including carpets, food wrappers and nonstick cookware. At Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the chemicals were in firefighting foam used by airstrip crews training for possible crashes.

In humans, they pose health concerns such as elevated risks for kidney and testicular cancer and possible effects on fetal development and the immune system, according to the EPA.

The highest levels have been detected in watersheds near military bases, industrial sites and wastewater-treatment plants, where these chemicals were commonly used.

In recent years, the EPA required monitoring in drinking-water systems around the country. In a study released this past summer, Harvard researchers who analyzed the results found 66 water supplies, serving 6 million people, with at least one test sample over the EPA guideline.

In Washington, the state Board of Health may develop a drinking-water standard for PFAS or other similar chemicals for which the EPA has not developed guidelines but that still may pose risks. To inform that process, the state Department of Health is starting its own investigation around Washington.

"We need to test the water and find out what the people are being exposed to," said Lauren Jenks, of the state Department of Health.

In Washington, Defense Department testing has found some of the most serious contamination near Fairchild Air Force Base outside of Spokane.

As of early December, 67 of 316 wells tested above EPA guidelines for PFAS, according to 2nd Lt. Kaila Bryant, a base public-affairs officer.

The results included contamination detected this past spring in the water supply for Airway Heights, a city of some 6,000 people. Two city wells were found to be more than 15 times over the EPA guideline, The Spokesman-Review reported in May.

Airway Heights public-works crews flushed the city's drinking-water system, then switched to Spokane city water, according to a statement from the city.

Coupeville's public-water system has never tested above the EPA threshold, according to city and Navy officials. It now serves about 1,000 people, and once the filters are installed, will be expanded to serve more than a half-dozen area homeowners with private wells that tested positive for contamination.

Some island residents are also concerned about other firefighting-foam chemicals detected in wells that could be as bad -- or worse -- for human health.

In a December statement, Hughes, the Coupeville mayor, said the EPA has not set advisory standards for these chemicals "so there is nothing to judge them against and no clear way to make decisions about them." She said Tuesday the filtration system should be able to address those chemicals as well.

Steve Swanson, an island homeowner whose well was contaminated, said he is uneasy about hooking up to the town water system even if a filtration system is put in.

"There is no ideal solution. We have to trust that the Navy will filtrate the water properly," Swanson said.

--This article is written by Hal Bernton from Seattle Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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