‘Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.’
These nine famous words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ’The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ describe exactly the circumstance that over forty residential homes in the Hannah Heights neighborhood are experiencing, at this very moment. These homes house families with small children or elderly couples, and a wide range of members of the community from all walks of life.
Below their beautiful homes nestled along the western bluffs of San Juan Island, lays Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a salty inland sea connected to the Pacific Ocean just leagues to the west. Surrounding them, misty morning dew and moist cool ocean air drifts over a rich diversity of trees, plants, and native vegetation.
Beneath them, a freshwater aquifer recharged only by the limited rainfall the islands receive annually, located in the rain shadow of the Pacific Northwest. Above them, a small neighborhood fire station with a rich history dating back to the late 1970s.
Although this may sound idyllic, things are deeply amiss.
Just six weeks ago residents of this sleepy neighborhood community were shocked to discover that the water they’ve been using to drink, brush their teeth, rinse their vegetables, water their gardens, fill their animal’s water bowls, shower and bathe in, has been highly contaminated for years.
The water toxicity is so high that sites with similar results across the country have been designated Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Generally, toxicity found to be this high in the water is usually associated with a nearby military base or a large-scale manufacturing and production facility, not an isolated residential community located miles from any urban center.
A Superfund site designation in some cases provides federal assistance with installing Point of Entry and Point of Use water filtration systems in homes where levels of contaminants in water far exceed levels considered safe for consumption. These federal steps take time, however, and that is something this community can’t afford.
As residents still reel from the news, experiencing a broad range of emotions from shock and anxiety to grief and anger, there is a growing resolve among the community to find solutions. They must. This adversely affects their families, their homes, their mental and physical health, their sense of well-being at a fundamental level, and possibly even their property values.
Neighbors are in discussion with neighbors to relocate or drill a new well, but with little to no success to date. Wells in the vicinity are being tested for similar toxins. Blood tests of some residents who’ve been in contact with the water for years are receiving alarming news. Neighbors are forced to take time out of their own daily lives to navigate complicated rules, regulations, and government bureaucracies on their quest for assistance.
Hannah Heights residents have brought in an expert to assist with their situation. Dr. Seetha Coleman-Kammula PhD., is president of PFASolutions, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to providing solutions to PFAS contamination by detecting PFAS in the environment and researching technologies to remove and ultimately destroy PFAS.
“Our center has been analyzing PFAS in drinking water supplied by municipal water suppliers in Delaware, whose wells are heavily impacted by PFAS, to monitor the performance of their large-scale Granular Activated Carbon system every quarter,” says Coleman-Kammula. “The wells are near an airport and a Delaware Air National Guard site where PAFS containing Fire Fighting Foam were used for training purposes.”
“The total amount of PFAS found in Hannah Heights (7,600 ppt) is higher than the wells around the airport in Delaware,” adds Coleman-Kammula, “But alarmingly Hannah Heights water has 600 and 44 times higher amounts of PFOS and PFOA, compared to US EPA’s maximum contaminated level.”
“It’s important to remember that the Hannah Heights community has no alternative sources of drinking water,” says Coleman-Kammula. “Currently the Hannah Heights community is trying to access funds via the State Drinking Water Revolving Fund (SDWRF). But getting funds via SDWRF can take many months.”
Unfortunately, Hannah Heights residents have been told that SDWRF does not have a provision for safe drinking water supplies and the fund does not allow for either bottled or transported water. “Hannah Heights folks are buying bottled water,” adds Coleman-Kammula, “but this can not be sustained for months and is certainly not possible to transport water for cooking and brushing teeth etc. So, what are communities in situations such as in Hannah Heights supposed to do?”
Coleman-Kammula suggests either the state or Army Corp of Engineers help provide the community with drinking water, and also collect all Class-B firefighting foam including AFFF from firehouses across the state. “Michigan did this and found an amazingly large amount of inventory and had it destroyed.”
According to Paul Hart, a Hannah Heights resident and HOA board member tasked with tackling this water issue, “The impact to this community could be potentially catastrophic. These numbers are extraordinarily high. If this was in a larger community there would be red flags going up everywhere, but since we are a small community on the west side of San Juan Island—which everybody considers to be a millionaire’s playground, but in terms of our community, it is definitively not.”
“I think there’s an assumption that we can fend for ourselves,” adds Hart. “Well, we are learning to fend for ourselves. We have to. And that’s why, as I told somebody else the other day, you go through shock, to anxiety, to anger to just a resolve to get on with it. And we are doing everything as fast as we possibly can to connect our people to fresh water.”
Meantime, just over a hundred feet uphill from the contaminated well sits the Little Mountain Fire Station, a San Juan County fire station dating back to the late 1970s or early 1980s.
According to Allen Smith, who served as a volunteer firefighter at Little Mountain station for 22 years before retiring in 2006, “Little Mountain was the best station on the island…It was built by volunteer labor. That community there, they built it.”
Over his tenure, Allen responded to dozens of fires and other emergencies, taking pride in his service to the community, but is especially fond of his time at Little Mountain station. Allen reminisces about those old days, saying “We all were all about the same age. We’re raising our families together and building our houses. So we all were really very similar that way. And of course we all live nearby. We had a good reputation. We were a firefighting bunch.”
In 2002 Allen was dispatched to be one of the firefighters who responded to the Whitey’s grocery store fire which destroyed an old grocery store at the corner of Spring and First Street. The large fire also threatened surrounding buildings before being brought under control using Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF).
Allen explained the foam was used to protect nearby property from being burned. “They still use foam—of a different makeup—to protect houses in a wildland fire. They’ll foam the house down and then go on to the next house. It acts as protection, hoping it’ll save the house.”
Allen acknowledges that they would practice with firefighting foam regularly, and although he doesn’t recall using foam at Little Mountain station very often, they would regularly rinse out their hoses there.
“It’s really frustrating to protect the island for all these years, and then have this turn up,” adds Allen, referring to the Hannah Heights water contamination incident unfolding.
Test results from surrounding wells have started to come in. The good news, according to Hart, is that of the twenty-two samples taken from wells and homes in close proximity to the area of concern and a little beyond, who have shared their results, report those wells to be clean.
“Meanwhile, our well which has been lying dormant now, has levels that, I don’t know, what’s above astronomical?” says Hart. “Now they are over 9,400 for PFOS, and 7550 for PFHxS. We were the highest in the state and for public wells in the first (tests), which were a third of these numbers.”
“Now that water is not going anywhere. The well is shut down,” adds Hart. “But what it indicates is that it’s seeping in from the surface. We sampled that well in two places. One is where the casement was cracked 38 feet down. And then we sampled pumped water… We put a camera down with the sample bottle down the casing, and it looked like a gentle spigot coming out of the side of the casing, maybe half a gallon a minute. At that level, it’s as I said [PFOS are] over 9,400, and the pumped water [PFOS level] is 6750 and 6800. So that gives us a pretty good indication [the contaminate is] coming in through the groundwater. And it means that the contaminant is at very high levels.”
While the Department of Ecology has yet to visit and assess the site, Hart expects their arrival soon, explaining they are overcommitted but will be here as soon as they can.
Dr. Coleman-Kammula wondered how many similar places might be found throughout the country. “The only way we would know that is to have states regulating things. We’re going to have to go through all the files and say, if you’ve got any of this stuff, give it back. And also tell us if you used it in the past. We’ve got to start collecting that data,” she said.
As this story continues to unfold, the underlying warning from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ of the dangers of acting without regard for the consequences seems more relevant than ever.