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Is toxic chemical used at Scott Air Force Base contaminating local water sources?

Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), operating in the Pacific Ocean on Aug. 1, 2018, test a firefighting system that uses an aqueous film forming foam that consists of a toxic class of chemicals, known as PFAS. Investigators at Scott Air Force Base have determined that PFAS chemicals have saturated the ground at seven sites at the Illinois base, according to reports on Feb. 14, 2020.

BRETT ANDERSON/U.S. NAVY

By KELSEY LANDIS | Belleville News-Democrat | Published: February 15, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Chemicals known to cause serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects, may be contaminating water sources near Scott Air Force Base.

Studies commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed that a toxic class of chemicals, known as PFAS, have saturated the ground at seven sites on base. Those chemicals may have leached into local water supplies, according to an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

A statement issued Friday by the 375th Airlift Wing Public Affairs office at Scott AFB acknowledges that the potential of contamination was first identified by the civil engineers on base in July of 2015. It did not explain why an independent site inspection wasn't completed until August of 2019.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has since recommended testing public water supplies up to 15 miles south and east of the base "to determine if a potential immediate threat to human health is present." It also recommended that privately-owned ground wells within four miles of Scott AFB be tested.

According to the statement from the base, the Air Force is working with local regulators to identify and test wells within one mile of the base's southeastern boundary. That discrepancy with the Illinois EPA recommendation is not addressed in the statement.

"In the event any human drinking water wells believed to be impacted by Air Force activities exceed Lifetime HA (Health Advisory), the Air Force will take immediate measures to provide bottled water or other alternative sources until more permanent mitigation can be installed," the Scott Air Force Base statement says.

An expanded site inspection is scheduled to begin this summer, according to the Illinois EPA.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the Air Force contacted his office with preliminary details on the contamination at the Air Force base this week and that his office has reached out to local elected officials to determine next steps.

Durbin is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and says he has worked to increase funding for PFAS remediation.

"Unfortunately, this is not a new issue," Durbin wrote in a prepared statement. "As this situation develops, I will continue to work closely with federal, state, and local officials to ensure Congress is doing everything it can to protect the public health of all those who work at Scott AFB as well as the residents living nearby."

What are PFAS and why are they bad?

PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) are synthetic chemicals found in common household products such as nonstick cookware and stain repellent for carpets. Most Americans have some levels of PFAS in their bodies because the so-called "forever chemicals" do not break down naturally and can accumulate over time.

At high concentrations, PFAS are known to cause serious health problems, according to the EPA. The risks are especially high for pregnant women, children and unborn babies. Studies have linked the chemicals to cancer and birth defects, among other health problems.

At Scott AFB and other military installations, PFAS are the primary active ingredient in "aqueous film forming foam" that is effective in extinguishing aviation fuel fires.

In 2016, Congress forced the military to study levels at their installations nationwide. The Department of Defense began monitoring PFAS levels more closely in the soil and, in July, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper created a task force to determine the extent of cancer-causing chemicals, including PFAS, on military bases.

Aerostar SES, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based environmental consulting firm, was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to perform site inspections for PFAS at Scott AFB in 2018. Aerostar SES tested for ground contamination at seven sites at Scott, including four fire stations, Cardinal Lake and discharge points from Mosquito Creek and the base's golf course.

The findings were reported to the Civic Engineering Center at Scott in January 2019, and then to the Illinois EPA, which in August approved an expanded site investigation, which is to include nearby water supplies, the Illinois EPA report stated.

According to the Illinois EPA, any possible environmental or ecological effects of contamination will not be part of the expanded study. Silver Creek flows through Scott Air Force Base before it meets the Kaskaskia River in south St. Clair County.

Water supplies

Before the expanded testing begins, wells on privately-owned land within a four-mile radius of Scott AFB will have to be identified and their owners contacted, the Illinois EPA report stated.

Public water services up to 15 miles "downgradient" from the base also will be instructed to test for PFAS, if they don't already.

Illinois American Water provides service to the base and surrounding areas with water sourced from the Mississippi River, not groundwater, said spokeswoman Karen Cotton. The company already tests for PFAS and ensures the water does not exceed the EPA's drinking water standards.

"The PFAS issue is one of the most rapidly changing landscapes in drinking water contamination," Cotton wrote in a statement to the BND. "American Water has invested time and effort on our own independent research, as well as engaging with other experts in the field to understand PFAS occurrence, fate and transport in the environment.

"We are also actively assessing treatment technologies that can effectively remove PFAS from drinking water, because we believe that investment in research is critical for addressing this issue."

Not a new problem

The presence of dangerous levels of the chemicals in soil at airports and military installations is not new.

PFAS has been identified at hundreds of installations, according to reports by McClatchy. Scott AFB was not included on an updated list released last year.

The Department of Defense continues to fund research into PFAS-free fire extinguishing foam, but an effective alternative has yet to be developed. They still use the PFAS foam in actual aircraft crashes, but have started using a less effective alternative in training.

Since the 1970s, military members have used the firefighting foam at installations throughout the country without personal protection. The Air Force and Centers for Disease Control has said it plans to study connections between the chemical and cancer in personnel at other bases.

PFAS remediation is possible, but it is a challenge.

"The same chemical properties that make PFAS so effective in firefighting foams and other products make them particularly hard to remediate," U.S. EPA scientists wrote in a 2019 report.

Technology for remediating PFAS is in its infancy, the report states. One of the most promising solutions involves absorbing PFAS and immobilizing it in soil, which keeps it from leaking into groundwater.

Scott AFB originally served as Scott Field, named for Cpl. Frank Scott, who died in 1911 in a plane crash. Scott Field was used as a training center for pilots. Scott Field was renamed Scott Air Force Base in 1948. It remains a training facility and the home of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, which supports aeromedical evacuation for the military.

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