A potentially hazardous chemical, found in firefighting foam, has been discovered in a few wells on Whidbey Island. While the Navy distributes bottled water and plans for expanded testing, homeowners worry about longlasting harm.
COUPEVILLE, Island County — In early December, Jim Heidinger got disturbing news about the well that supplies water for his Whidbey Island home.
Heidinger lives near a Navy airfield, and a laboratory analysis showed contamination — at levels more than triple an Environmental Protection Agency guideline — for chemicals found in aviation firefighting foam.
A Navy representative hand-carried the results to his door and left behind bottled water to drink in place of tap.
For Heidinger, this revelation left him wondering about his future. “I have $20,000 invested in something — my well — that now is useless,” Heidinger said. “If it can’t be fixed, how would I ever sell my property?”
So far, the Navy has tested more than 170 island wells and found foam contaminants in Heidinger’s well and seven others, at levels above the EPA guideline. Residents who got the bad news have expressed worry, and sometimes anger, as they learn their well water is suddenly off-limits. And as they think about all the water they’ve been drinking for years, homeowners now are researching the health risks — including some types of cancer — linked to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS.
The continuing effort to determine the scope of the well pollution has added a new layer of tension to the Navy’s relations with its Whidbey Island neighbors just as base officials prepare for a major expansion. Even as the Navy bankrolls bottled water, officials say they have no record of the firefighting foam being used at the airfield near Heidinger’s house.
“We wanted to immediately assess whether there was an impact on our neighbors,” said Dina Ginn, a Navy official involved in the testing program. “We take our stewardship role of the environment very seriously.”
The situation has played out in other parts of the country — including in Issaquah — as tests document the pollution legacy of these man-made chemicals that may linger in the environment for thousands of years.
PFAS have been used over the decades in a wide range of products including carpets, food wrappers and the manufacture of nonstick cookware. At Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the chemicals were in firefighting foam used by airstrip crews training for possible crashes.
The most serious contamination was found at an Oak Harbor residence near Ault Field, the base’s main airstrip. The well that supplies that home with drinking water is contaminated with one PFAS chemical at more than 35 times the EPA guideline, according to Navy-contracted test results.
Near the Coupeville airstrip, the Navy testing found Heidinger’s well and six others had levels that exceeded the EPA guideline, which is set to protect someone who drinks the water through the course of their lifetime. The wells that tested above the EPA guideline ranged from nearly twice the recommended threshold to more than nine times greater, according to test results released in February.
The Navy tests also detected a PFAS chemical — at a level below the EPA guideline — in one of four Coupeville wells that collectively deliver water to more than 1,000 residences and businesses. The water from that well has always been blended with other flows. Once diluted, separate testing showed levels much further below the EPA guideline.
“We’ve not changed our operations at all as a result of this information,” said Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes.
Tests and lawsuits
The two substances that have turned up in the Whidbey Island drinking water have been largely phased out, but researchers are just beginning to assess the pollution left behind.
In humans, they pose health concerns that include elevated risks for kidney and testicular cancer and adverse effects on fetal development and the immune system, according to the EPA.
In recent years, the EPA required monitoring in drinking-water systems all over the country. In a study released last summer, Harvard researchers who analyzed the results found 66 water supplies, serving some 6 million people, with at least one test sample measuring above what is now the EPA advisory limit for PFAS — set last May at 70 parts per trillion for those who drink the water throughout their life.
The Harvard study tracked some of the highest levels of the chemicals in the watersheds near military bases and industrial sites.
For decades, a West Virginia DuPont plant that manufactured Teflon released PFAS into the air, ground water and a river. In February, DuPont and a spinoff company, Chemours, agreed to pay more than $670 million to settle more than 3,500 lawsuits filed by Ohio and West Virginia residents who allege that the substances had sickened them.
In Vermont, concern over the PFAS resulted in a state drinking-water standard of 20 parts per trillion — far below the 70 parts per trillion guideline set by the EPA, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
Washington state was not a site for manufacturers using PFAS. But those chemicals still are a problem.
A 2008 survey detected the “widespread presence” of the chemicals in surface waters, fish tissue, even osprey eggs.
Outside Whidbey Island, the state’s biggest trouble spot for PFAS contamination of drinking water has been Issaquah, where firefighting crews used foam. Testing several years ago found a PFAS chemical in one municipal well at levels more than five times the EPA’s current guideline.
Issaquah officials say the water from that well was always blended with another well, so the levels delivered to people’s taps always were considerably lower than the test reading. To further safeguard the drinking water, the city installed a $642,000 carbon filtration system, which has brought the levels down to the point where they are no longer detected.
“It’s important to note that Issaquah meets all standards set for safe drinking water, according to Bret Heath,the city’s director of public works and emergency management.
In Washington state, PFAS also have been detected at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in tests last June and November. The base has 28 drinking-water wells, and levels at three exceeded the EPA guideline and were taken offline, according to an Army statement released Thursday. The levels in one of the three wells was just over the EPA guideline, the second was more than double and the third was more than triple.
The Army statement said JBLM’s water is safe to drink, and will be periodically tested.
The state health and ecology departments are now conducting their own review, a process that will include new monitoring and recommendations on how to protect human health.
‘Punch in the gut’
On Whidbey Island, the groundwater investigation comes at a sensitive time for the Navy as the air station prepares to expand its fleet of Growler EA-18G jet aircraft.
The Navy has plenty of vocal supporters on an island where military spending is a mainstay of the economy.
But tourism — and rural surroundings that draw many retirees — also is important on an island rich in sweeping waterfront views of the Olympics and Cascades.
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Some residents cite health concerns — and a serious erosion of their lifestyle — from the noise generated by the Growlers as crews practice their landings and takeoffs. That backlash intensified as the Navy this winter took comments on a draft environmental study of the expansion plans.
The water pollution has become a new flashpoint for conflict.
“This just felt like a punch in the gut,” said Sandy Swanson, who 15 years ago moved to Whidbey Island with her husband, Steve, an emergency-room physician, and built a spacious home for their retirement.
Before buying the property, the couple did extensive tests of the well water for agricultural chemicals and other contaminants, and it all came back clear.
At the time, they didn’t know about PFAS, so they didn’t test for them. Then, in early December, they were shocked to find their drinking water tested at more than six times higher than the EPA guideline for one of the PFAS chemicals.
In recent weeks, the Swansons have steeped themselves in the chemistry of the firefighting foams. They have decided they won’t grow an organic garden this summer. It yielded bountiful harvests in years past, but studies show contaminants in the water can be absorbed by edible plants.
Navy officials say the bottled water is just a first step. It is unclear what else might be done, but the possibilities include finding new sources of drinking water for homes with contaminated wells, or installing filtration systems that will bring the chemical concentrations down below the EPA guideline.
The Navy also will bankroll more water testing in an expanded area to check for more problem wells.
“We need to understand what is occurring on our sites before we move forward,” said Ginn, the Navy official. “This is going to take some time”
Meanwhile, nearly a dozen island homeowners have retained attorneys John Phillips and Corrie Yackulic, who represented Oso landslide survivors in litigation settled last year.
So far, even as Navy officials pay for testing and bottled drinking water, they have yet to acknowledge that airfield operations were responsible for the pollution.
On the airstrip, Naval Outlying Field Coupeville, Navy officials say they have no record of even using the foams.
Despite the lack of documentation, Heidinger said that in years past, he did see crews spread foam on the field, which lies just beyond a grove of trees on the edge of his property.
“I never paid much attention to it,” Heidinger said. “I just figured they were practicing, and it’s all part of what they do. You could see the (foam) laying out on the ground.”