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Navy offers testing, information to Jacksonville residents concerned about well water contamination

By JOE DARASKEVICH | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: August 18, 2018

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — It's a process playing out around 40 Navy and Marine Corps installations: testing drinking water from privately owned wells for traces of harmful chemicals found in the foam that was used for years to extinguish aircraft fires.

With it has come an information campaign like the one on display Thursday night at the Courtyard by Marriott in Orange Park. The hotel is just down the road from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, where the aqueous film forming foam was used regularly from the mid-1960s until the late '90s in the training of firefighters.

Letters and postcards went out from the base over the last two weeks to about 3,000 homes in the area to make residents aware of possible contamination of their drinking well water. Only 24 wells were identified initially as potential health risks, said Adrienne Wilson, the restoration project manager. But she said the agencies wanted to make sure anyone who lives near the base was aware of the Thursday open house.

The 51 people who walked through the doors got the chance to speak to representatives from the Navy, the Florida Department of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the City of Jacksonville and JEA. Even the commanding officer of the installation was there.

"I want to make sure that the residents that are around NAS Jacksonville understand and know that the Navy and NAS Jacksonville are dedicated to being involved and being engaged to see this issue resolved," said Capt. Michael Connor.

Representatives from the various organizations said Thursday that it's really too early to know the severity of the situation until the test results start to come back in September.

Right now the organizers are in the preliminary assessment stage and are starting site inspections. Experts had tested 12 wells through Thursday and are scheduled for nine more next week. One resident who showed up Thursday has a well for drinking water that was not on the initial list, so the total number of test wells is now up to 25.

If a well exceeds safe levels for drinking water, the Navy will provide bottled water at no charge and offer to connect the home to the JEA water supply.

The wells that will be tested – at no cost to the owners – are to the southwest and northwest of the base, which is located in the Ortega area. The areas for the testing do not include residential neighborhoods directly south and west of the installation.

Many of the residents who came out Thursday live outside the so-called areas of interest, but they were very interested.

Clyde and Jean Werts said they live off Collins Road and have had to put down multiple dogs early in life due to cancer, heart and kidney failure.

Norris Lackey manages an RV and trailer park directly across Roosevelt Boulevard from the base where residents use a 650-foot well for drinking water.

Pat Watson bought a house in Venetia in 1966 and uses her 90-foot well to fill her pool, where she does water aerobics on most days in the summer.

Wayne Beck has lived on the St. Johns River just south of the base's fence line since 1994; and his 26-year-old daughter has been suffering from thyroid problems for years.

Watson and the Werts live within the testing zones, but Beck and the trailer park are outside them.

"They told me I could swim in it, but just don't drink it," Watson said of her pool water.

Beck said, "They should be checking for everything and not just those chemicals."

THE CHEMICALS

The EPA issued lifetime health advisory levels in May 2016 for perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid at 70 parts per trillion, individually and combined if both are present, according to the Navy. There are no EPA regulations for the compounds, but the EPA established the lifetime health advisory levels to offer a margin of protection for all Americans throughout their life from potential adverse health effects resulting from exposure to the chemicals in drinking water.

A month after the advisory was issued, the Navy created a policy to identify areas where the materials had been released. Of the 127 Navy and Marine Corps installations that were found to have released the chemicals, it was determined that 40 exceeded the health advisory levels.

All 17 samples that were taken inside the boundaries of NAS Jacksonville tested above the advisory levels, ranging from 3,410 to 1,397,120 parts per trillion.

Test wells just outside the base to the south tested below the suggested levels, and that reason – as well as the fact that groundwater in that area flows west – caused organizers to exclude the area directly south of the base from the zones of concern.

Residents asked Thursday why the levels were so high in certain areas of the base and why the areas near those locations were chosen as the civilian test zones.

Authorities explained the southern zone was chosen because the southwest corner of the base was used by the Defense Logistics Agency, formerly the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, as a storage area for various types of materials that ended up in the soil.

The test wells on the northern end of the base are located in the firefighting training area, which had the highest levels at the installation.

Timuquana Country Club is just west of the training area and has a pond with levels exceeding the advisory. Wilson said the golf course uses water from the pond for irrigation and because groundwater flows northwest in that area, the surrounding neighborhoods were selected for well water testing.

"We found out about these particular areas a few months ago," she said.

Currently, there is no legal requirement to test the drinking water, but Wilson said when the regulations come out they would prefer to be ready for anything that is put into place.

PREVIOUS ISSUE

Pollution from Navy activity has seeped into Jacksonville well water before.

It was shown years ago to have harmed a different Westside neighborhood and was later blamed for one death.

Neighbors around Hipps Road off Old Middleburg Road sued the Navy and a garbage hauler in the 1980s because toxic chemicals had seeped through groundwater from a dump where trash from two bases was disposed of in the 1960s. Arsenic, benzene, PCBs and other chemicals were found in neighbors' wells.

The Navy spent more than $4 million defending itself against the lawsuit.

But after the neighbors' leader died in 1992 of a kind of cancer known to be caused by chemicals that were at the dump, a federal judge ordered the Navy to pay her family $1.4 million in damages. Other neighbors were awarded payments for medical treatments and for testing to watch for sicknesses in the future.

Hundreds of other people got much smaller amounts from a $18.25 million settlement neighbors reached in 1996 with Waste Management, a national company that had bought out the company that had delivered waste to the dump. That settlement included $250,000 to connect homes to public water service, although most of the neighborhood had JEA service by then.

A part of Hipps Road spent years as a federal Superfund site, an area where the EPA oversees cleanup of severe contamination. The neighborhood was removed from the Superfund list in 2012, after the cleanup was finished.

Beck, who lives on the river south of the base, said he remembers the issue on Hipps Road because he owned property in that area. He said most of the neighbors had visions of big settlements coming their way, but most of the people ended up with just enough money to get public water.

"I never heard of anybody ever getting more than $500 so they could hook up with the city," Beck said.

He said the Navy answered all his questions Thursday, and he now understands why they won't be testing his well water initially.

Beck's well water was tested in 1994 when he first moved in, and he was told nothing was wrong even though water out of the faucet smelled like mothballs. Just to be safe the family chose to drink bottled water, Beck said, but they still use the well water for cooking, bathing and brushing teeth.

CONCERNS FOR CHILDREN

Many people at Thursday's meeting had similar concerns and said they would be following along as the process unfolds. The chemicals the Navy is looking for have been linked to cancer and other defects.

"If you have infants who are developing and mothers who are pregnant, that's when they are the most sensitive to being exposed," said Pete Dao, a remedial project manager with the EPA at NAS Jacksonville.

Beck said that's his biggest concern because his daughter was young when they moved close to the base.

He left Thursday with the phone number of a private company that would test his well water for a fee. He said he plans to get that done and encouraged anyone else outside the areas of interest to do the same.

Beck said, "If there's some type of chemical in my water and my daughter has thyroid problems because of it, that's a problem."

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