US Army in Ansbach concealing details about groundwater contamination, German officials say
By JOHN VANDIVER AND MARCUS KLOECKNER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 30, 2019
The Army is withholding the results of groundwater and soil tests that looked for harmful chemical contamination near its facilities in Ansbach and has failed to fix a public health problem that has lingered for years, German officials have said.
“The city of Ansbach greatly regrets that, for the foreseeable future, it will not be possible to report on reliable results from the detailed investigation and solutions for eliminating the burden” of chemical toxins in drinking water and soil, a city spokesman, who asked not to be named, said in an email sent to Stars and Stripes.
The chemical substance at the heart of the row, which has been roiling since 2016, is perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS. Three years ago, the compound was found in soil samples at the airfield at the Army’s Katterbach Kaserne.
PFOS and similar chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), are part a group of man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They have been found at military bases worldwide and, in some cases, have contaminated drinking supplies. At bases in the U.S., the military is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to mitigate PFC contamination.
Once widely used in firefighting foam, PFCs also are found in stain repellents used in carpets and clothing and in the nonstick coatings of cooking utensils. The chemical compounds do not break down in the environment and accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals.
Exposure to PFCs above certain levels might cause low birth weight and skeletal variations in unborn and breast-fed babies, as well as cancer and liver damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When PFAS contamination first emerged as an issue in the Ansbach region in 2016, Army officials said supplies of drinking water on post were not affected. But recent tests found higher-than-normal levels of PFAS in soil and groundwater samples in the city of Ansbach, Army and local government officials said.
An investigation by an independent contractor hired by the Army found chemical “concentrations in soil and groundwater are exceeding Bavarian threshold levels,” the garrison said in August after learning the results.
The Army is working to address the contamination problem, but has been withholding details of a recent probe into the issue because the study did not meet U.S. standards and was incomplete, said Ansbach garrison spokeswoman Cornelia Summer.
“The report is currently being revised to meet acceptable U.S. standards and contractual requirements,” Summer said in a statement. “It will be shared once finalized and U.S. governmental review is completed.”
U.S. Army Environmental Command in San Antonio, Texas, and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Huntsville, Ala., are assessing the study, the Army said. Funding has been made available for the Army to try to fix the problem of PFC infiltration into groundwater and stormwater systems on the installation in Ansbach. A stormwater management engineer is working on the issue, officials said.
“We intend to install wells at strategic locations to pump and treat the contaminated groundwater before it leaves the base, but the acquisition of funds, scope of work, awarding of contracts, etc. will take time,” the Army said.
Because PFCs don’t degrade naturally over time, constant testing and treatment of water are required over an extended period.
“The U.S. Army is aware of the risks posed by PFAS and is assessing several alternatives to find the most expedient, efficient and effective way to contain the PFAS plume at the former Fire-Fighting Training Pit on Katterbach Kaserne,” the Army said in a statement released in August.
Drinking water in the city of Ansbach is not contaminated by PFAS because the city’s water supply isn’t drawn from sources near the base, some local officials have said.
Others, including Boris-Andre Meyer of Ansbach’s Left Party, dispute that.
Since early last year, the local health authority knew that PFAS had found their way into a local well in Obereichenbach, part of Ansbach, said Meyer.
“Families in Ansbach drank PFC-contaminated water for a long time,” said Meyer, adding that American families who lived in Obereichenbach also might have been affected.
Tests conducted this year found that PFC contamination in well water increased from 2.24 micrograms per liter to 3.27 micrograms per liter.
“Steps need to be taken immediately,” Meyer said. “The way the Army is behaving is irresponsible and unacceptable.”
Katterbach Kaserne, part of the United States Army Garrison Ansbach. German officials have accused the U.S. Army of withholding results of groundwater and soil tests conducted near its facilities in Ansbach, where earlier studies have found elevated levels of potentially toxic chemicals.
MARTIN EGNASH/STARS AND STRIPES