The U.S. Navy responded last week to questions initially sent in August, in advance of a report on why firefighting chemicals continue to pollute Bucks and Montgomery County communities more than five years after widespread contamination was originally discovered.
The questions were sent Aug. 29 ahead of a report published a week later by this news organization, which focused on the federal regulations and policies underpinning environmental cleanup. The reporting found that although per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the toxic chemicals found in firefighting foams used by the military, are almost entirely unregulated, the military does have the ability to clean them from the environment. But, it appears the military was in no rush to do so as they study the issue, and that environmental regulators such as the Environmental Protection Agency have few tools to effectively prod them along.
The followup response from the Navy came from Greg Preston, director of the department’s Base Realignment and Closure Program on the East Coast, and was specific to the former Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Horsham. Preston said the Navy continues to follow the regulations laid out in the EPA’s Superfund program and is still in the midst of a remedial investigation (RI) to study the contamination in Bucks and Montgomery counties, echoing what local Navy officials have said during quarterly meetings.
“The RI will help the Navy and its regulatory partners to understand that nature and extent of (PFAS) contamination,” Preston wrote.
Preston also reiterated the Navy has “proactively chosen” to implement some limited cleanup measures, such as soil removal and the installation of a pilot “pump-and-treat” system for groundwater at Willow Grove.
“The results of this pilot study will assist the Navy in its effort to design larger and more robust full-scale systems,” Preston said, further adding that other research projects on potential cleanup solutions are underway. “Navy is closely monitoring these technologies with an eye toward the probability for success should they be implemented in the field.”
Our September report also focused on the process the military uses to select a safe cleanup level for unregulated chemicals such as PFAS. The report cited internal military DOD communications and a public policy detailing methods for developing safe cleanup levels in the absence of state or federal standards. The Navy was asked why that process hasn’t already been completed.
Preston responded that such values, which he referred to as “preliminary remediation goals,” aren’t developed until the military’s cleanup efforts progress past remedial investigation and into a “feasibility study” to evaluate potential cleanup solutions.
“The development of (the goals) involves ensuring that the most valid toxicity values for contaminants of concern are used in calculating remediation goals,” Preston said.
Preston did not offer a timeline of when the Navy anticipates going through that process at Willow Grove, but he said the Navy has already acted to “reduce drinking water exposure” to the chemicals and reiterated that it continues to evaluate additional actions at the base.
As previously reported, large-scale PFAS drinking water contamination was first discovered in the vicinity of Willow Grove in 2014, but the chemicals were first detected in groundwater there and at the Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster in 2011.
Prior investigations from this news organization found that higher-level experts within the Department of Defense were aware of risks to drinking water from PFAS in firefighting foams as far back as 1995, but that the military did little to curb their use or begin studying solutions until the issue became a public crisis in 2014.
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