Ansbach drinking water safe, but chemical cleanup continues
June 24, 2016
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Cleanup is underway after a high level of a discontinued chemical compound was found in the soil and groundwater near the Ansbach military community.
The chemical, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, was widely used in firefighting foam until it was phased out about a decade ago. PFOS is in the perfluorochemical, or PFC, family of chemicals. They do not break down in the environment, and their effect on human health is not fully known, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prompted in part by high-profile contamination cases near Nuremberg and Dusseldorf, the Ansbach city government requested a sampling of soil and water near the American military air field at Katterbach Kaserne.
Base officials then commissioned independent, non-U.S.-military testing of the base groundwater and soil from an off-site laboratory certified by the German government.
Mathias Brenner, a member of the Ansbach environmental agency, said that the concentration of PFCs in soil around certain “hot spots” was at 245 micrograms per liter. The same location showed 207 micrograms per liter in ground water.
That is 800 times the level deemed acceptable by the Bavarian government, according to a January 2015 state environmental office report.
Karl Weighmann, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Army’s Directorate of Public Works for Ansbach, would not comment on the level of contamination, saying that it would be “premature to provide current lab results,” as site investigations are continuing.
“It should be noted, however, that drinking water sources within the city of Ansbach, to include Katterbach Kaserne, are not affected by the contamination,” Weighmann said in a statement.
The public works directorate set up a temporary pumping and treatment system in May to clean up one source of contamination. Since then, Brenner said, the chemicals’ concentration in water flowing from the base dropped to below detectable levels.
USAG Ansbach’s environmental team, working with the Army Environmental Command and Installation Management Command Europe, determined the likely source of the chemical was an old burn pit on the west side of the air field that was used to train military firefighters, said Walter Mattil, director of the Army public works directorate for Ansbach.
“At some point around 2008, it was determined that this stuff probably isn’t so good, so we discontinued using it,” Mattil said of the firefighting foam, which at one time was widely used at airports worldwide. “And I think most people did. But as a result, the damage had already been done.”
It was determined that contaminated water was leaving the base through basements, down storm sewers and leeching into nearby ponds, he said.
“Right now, we are physically treating the water before it leaves the campus and it’s PFC-free,” Mattil said. Construction on a more permanent pumping and treatment system is to begin later this year, he said.
Mattil said the base is committed to fixing the contamination issue in its backyard.
“We live here; we’re partners with the city of Ansbach. We wanted to not hide behind some legality,” Mattil said.
Ansbach joins military bases across the world in the cleanup efforts of this once-ubiquitous chemical. In 2015, Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska began a similar effort after PFOS was discovered in the drinking water there. Wright-Patterson Air Base in Ohio and Kadena Air Base in Japan, among others, have had similar issues with PFOS contamination.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, studies indicate that exposure to the chemicals above certain levels may cause low birth weight and skeletal variations in unborn and breast-fed babies, as well as cancer and liver damage.
Mattil said the cleanup efforts would go on for years. Because PFCs don’t naturally degrade over time, constant testing and treatment of water on and leaving the base will continue for the foreseeable future.
“I think we’ve done a lot of work trying to make sure the Stadt Ansbach here knows we’re transparent,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to help.”
Reporter Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this report.