Whidbey group calls for Navy site closure after aquifer contamination

Submitted by Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve

The discovery of toxic chemicals in the aquifer beneath the Navy’s Outlying Field on Whidbey Island has led to renewed calls for its closure and raised concerns about the adequacy and timing of Navy’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Residents near the OLF were notified of the contamination just after the Navy released its environmental study on proposed increases in ‘touch-and-go’ Growler fighter jet operations. Among other things, the DEIS was supposed to consider the impacts to “public health and safety” and “water resources” of almost a 600 percent increase in OLF operations, up to 35,000 operations a year.

Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve is calling for an extension of the Navy’s Jan. 25 deadline for public comments on the DEIS. The DEIS does not address this contamination issue or adequately assess other adverse impacts of the Navy’s operations, according to COER. The existing deadline for public comment will pass long before the Navy completes its investigation into the newly discovered contamination at the OLF – and before many residents will know if their water will be safe to drink.

One of two drinking water wells at the OLF was found contaminated with perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances on Oct. 11. Earlier sampling of groundwater at the Navy’s Ault Field installation revealed high levels of PFAS and other toxic substances. The Navy says it will provide alternative drinking water to residents if further testing reveals toxicity at levels of concern. The Navy has been done in other parts of the nation.

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), which was found in the aquifer at OLF, has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, birth defects, damage to the immune system, heart and thyroid disease, and complications during pregnancy. According to the EPA, it is hazardous in tiny doses because it accumulates in the body and takes years to excrete.

The use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam containing PFOA and/or PFOS is the suspected source of the contamination. The United States, Canada, European Union, Australia and Japan have banned new production of this fire fighting foam. However, the Navy has stockpiled large amounts for use until it finds a satisfactory substitute. The fire trucks sitting at the OLF during Growler operations still have PFOA containing AFFF ready for use.

“The threat to Coupeville’s water wells and private wells in the area will continue for as long as the OLF remains in use,” said Rick Abraham, an environmental consultant working with COER. “The use of AFFF, and the toxic chemicals normally released in an accident is a threat to the aquifer. Increasing operations will increase that threat.”

The Town of Coupeville has two wells fields in the area, one of which is adjacent to the OLF and located within the OLF’s ‘primary surface’ Accident Potential Zone. The well is also in the area where a Prowler jet crashed and burned in 1982. The accident and crash site, where AFFF may have been used, was not mentioned in the Navy’s public meetings or mailings. As of Dec. 5, the Navy had not gathered documentation of the crash or considered the location in its investigation plans.

“The last thing the Navy wants to do is draw attention to an accident that highlights the risks posed by thousands of touch-and-go training operations at the OLF,” said Maryon Atwood, a COER board member whose home and business is in the OLF’s APZ.

“The Navy’s approach to this pollution problem is no different than that of any big industrial polluter seeking to avoid criticism, reduce liability, and continue business-as-usual,” said Abraham. “Downplaying the seriousness of the problem, dragging out investigations, and keeping the public in the dark is what they too often do.”

  • The Navy did not reveal all contaminates found in the aquifer. Navy ‘informational’ materials only mention the finding of PFOA at OLF. In fact, Perfluoroheptanoic Acid, Perfluorobutanesulfonic Acid and Perfluorohexylsulfonic Acid were also found in the aquifer – and in higher concentrations.
  • The Navy sampled wells at the OLF on Sept. 19, discovered the contamination on Oct. 11, and notified residents within a mile radius by letter on Nov. 7. The DEIS, which made no reference to the contamination problem, was released on Nov. 10.
  • When the Navy consulted with the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve about installing monitoring wells at the OLF, it represented that the wells were being installed to, “better understand the flow of water in the area.” The Navy made no mention of pollutants already found in the aquifer, or that the wells would be used to sample for those pollutants.
  • The Navy’s “draft” Sampling and Analysis Plan for the OLF was provided to the EPA and Island County Public Health. All have refused to make the plan public, even though the investigation and installation of monitoring wells is underway. Keeping plans in the “draft” stage exempts them from open records laws, keeps people in the dark, and prevents meaningful public input.
  • The Navy has offered to sample private and public water wells near the OLF. If the off-site wells are shown to contain PFOA or PFOS above the EPA’s Health Advisory Level of 70 parts per trillion, the Navy says it will provide alternative water. According to a number of health experts, the levels deemed to be acceptable by the EPA, are set far too high and not adequately protective.
  • COER is suggesting that people near the OLF have their water independently tested for the same chemicals found by the Navy and that the Navy be asked to pay for the tests. “The testing of our water should not be a one-time event, and the analysis should identify the lowest detectable concentrations of those chemicals,” said Maryon Atwood. “Concentrations may increase or show up at a later date. We have a right to know what’s in the water we drink,” she added.

*Note, Rick Abraham worked as a consultant toxic pollution issues for international labor unions, environmental organizations, and law firms in the 1990s. He uncovered and publicized PFOA contamination in rivers, lakes, and drinking water supplies in at least five states. He also obtained and provided records of PFOA manufacturers and users to state agencies and the Department of Justice. Those records documented historical knowledge of the dangers associated with exposure to PFASs.

Articles about PFAS contamination associated with Naval and other military installations:

Contact: CitizensoftheEbeysReserve2@gmail.com, P.O. Box 202, Coupeville, WA 9823