Navy: Drinking water contaminated at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: January 20, 2016

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Tribune News Service) — High levels of contaminants from a firefighting foam that was used for decades at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field were found in well water at the installation during a recent laboratory test, leading Navy officials Wednesday to tell workers there to drink only bottled water.

About 50 people work at Fentress, in rural eastern Chesapeake near the Virginia Beach line. It's used by Navy pilots to practice aircraft carrier landings and does not have any homes on site. Navy officials said they'll work with local, state and federal officials in the coming weeks to determine whether wells in nearby residential areas are affected. Restoration of the groundwater will be addressed by the Navy Environmental Cleanup Program.

The Navy has indicated it plans to test groundwater in areas within a half-mile radius of Fentress, according to a statement from Chesapeake officials.

"It is important to note that the concerns about (the contaminants) relate only to water drawn from wells, and not for the municipal water system of the City of Chesapeake," the statement says.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate perfluorinated compounds, the contaminant found, but it considers them an "emerging contaminant" that could threaten health or the environment. The EPA is studying the contaminants to figure out whether regulations are needed.

"Right now the health effects are completely unknown," said Liz Nashold, regional environmental director for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. "We've gone above and beyond any requirements, any state and federal requirements, because we want to make sure we have high-quality drinking water for the sailors and civilians that are on Fentress Air Field," Nashold said.

Virginia doesn't have any standards for acceptable levels of the compounds in drinking water, but Minnesota and New Jersey do.

Until a federal determination is made, the EPA has issued a provisional health advisory that sets levels for when exposure to the compounds should be reduced. One of the compounds found at Fentress – perfluorooctane sulfonate – was five times the EPA advisory level of 0.2 micrograms per liter. The other compound – perfluorooctanoic acid – was more than four times the advisory level of 0.4 micrograms per liter.

The compounds are commonly found in paints, fabric, carpets, nonstick cookware, floor wax and food packaging, among other things. The compounds also are found in the foam used by the Navy to combat fires from plane crashes by suppressing fuel and oil, said Oceana Naval Air Station commanding officer Capt. Louis Schager. Schager oversees Fentress and said the foam was used during routine training at the site from the 1950s to the 1980s, but now only is used during an actual fire.

"We don't do that kind of training anymore," he said.

Studies have shown exposure to the compounds in humans may cause elevated levels of cholesterol and possibly low birth weight, according to the Navy. Studies have shown that animals given large doses of the compounds experienced developmental, reproductive and liver effects, while some studies suggested a link with certain cancers.

The contaminants are readily absorbed after oral exposure and accumulate primarily in the serum, kidney and liver, according to an EPA fact sheet.

Pilot writer Mary Beth Gahan contributed to this report.

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