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Navy proposes connecting homes with polluted wells near Fentress to city water system

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 25, 2018

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy is proposing to spend millions of dollars to connect the city water system to a handful of homes with polluted wells near its landing field in rural Chesapeake, hoping to remedy a problem caused by the Navy's use of a firefighting foam that contains potentially harmful chemicals.

The Navy scheduled a public information session Thursday night at Butts Road Intermediate School to gather public feedback.

The proposal to connect about half a dozen homes to the city water system would cost about $5.2 million, according to Navy documents. The Navy would pick up the tab for the pipe and connection costs, Naval Air Station Oceana spokeswoman Jennifer Hayes said.

Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress is in eastern Chesapeake near the Virginia Beach border and is used by the Navy so pilots can simulate landing on aircraft carriers. The Navy used a firefighting foam for decades at the air field that includes perfluorinated compounds, which have seeped into nearby wells. PFCs are manmade compounds that have been used since the 1950s in numerous products, such as nonstick cookware, water-repelling fabrics and stain-resistant carpets.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate PFCs, but it considers them an “emerging contaminant” that could threaten health or the environment. Some studies have indicated the compounds increase the risk for cancer in animals and damage to human liver cells, and have an association with thyroid disease. Other studies have shown that exposure may cause elevated cholesterol levels and low birth weight in humans.

The EPA is studying the contaminants to determine whether regulations for acceptable levels are needed. A provisional health advisory level is in place for now.

The Navy has been providing bottled water for workers at Fentress and homes with polluted wells ever since elevated levels of PFCs were found in nearby wells in 2016. Over the past two years, seven wells on six private properties have continued to test for levels that exceed the EPA's lifetime health advisory limits for the compounds.

It wasn't immediately clear Thursday when a decision on whether to connect homes to the city water system would be made or when the project would be finished if it is.

"Much of this depends on comments, contracts, and city operations," Hayes wrote in an email.

The Navy also considered treating well water to remove the contaminants, but its analysis said it wouldn't be as protective because it would require ongoing maintenance. The Navy's plan calls for leaving the private drinking water wells in place, but no longer using them as a water-supply system.

Starting in February, the Navy will begin twice-yearly sampling of private drinking water wells near the landing field at no cost to the owners.

Meanwhile, Naval Air Systems Command, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and a private firefighting foam manufacturer each are researching the development of a PFC-free foam, which the Defense Department believes would reduce the environmental impact of training while keeping personnel safe. The research will cost $2.5 million and is expected to be completed in 2020.

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