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HORSHAM TOWNSHIP, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Redeveloping a former naval airbase holds "tremendous potential" for Horsham's economy, but only if state and federal funds keep going toward environmental clean up.

That was the overall message from representatives of area water authorities and state lawmakers during a House Republican Policy Committee meeting on PFAS contamination Wednesday.

The former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove is one of three former and active military bases believed to be responsible for high levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in local drinking water wells.

Removing PFAS from firefighting foams used by the military for decades is currently the greatest roadblock in what state Rep. Todd Stephens described as a major economic boon for the area and the state.

"The real highlight for having the committee here is to see the tremendous potential that the former (base) has to offer our community, our region and, frankly, the commonwealth," Stephens, R-151, of Horsham, said during the meeting held in Horsham's municipal building.

PFAS contamination has already stalled the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority's plans to bring 1.7 million square feet of commercial development, and with that 7,075 jobs, for several years.

The hearing was more of an educational experience to stress the need for continued funding for PFAS clean up for Republican lawmakers unfamiliar with the contamination that thousands of area residents have lived with for years.

The 1,200-acre base closed in 2011, following a 2005 recommendation by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Committee to cease operations of everything but the Air Force Reserve Base at Willow Grove.

In 2012, the HLRA was selected to be the organization in charge of reshaping the 862 acres of the now-closed naval air station.

Redeveloping the former military base was no small task by itself. Horsham Township Manager Bill Walker said Wednesday any existing infrastructure on the base is unusable for HLRA's plans.

Willow Grove had also been listed as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site after several volatile organic compounds contaminating soil and ground water were found in 1995.

As HLRA Executive Director Michael McGee explained after Wednesday's hearing, environmental hazards had to be remediated before any redevelopment could move forward.

The military was already working in consultation with the EPA and the state's Department of Environmental Protection to remediate several contaminated areas of the base throughout the closure.

The EPA added PFAS to a list of potentially harmful unregulated chemicals in drinking water as part of a nationwide testing program between 2013 and 2015.

A lifetime health advisory level for PFAS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion was created in 2016, a level that many public wells in Horsham, Warminster and Warrington far exceeded.

Tina O'Rourke, business manager for the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority, said Wednesday that two of Horsham's 14 public wells showed levels of 1,000 ppt each when they were taken offline in 2016.

The 2016 levels not only shuttered the local drinking water supply for thousands of residents, but it brought another environmental roadblock to the HLRA redevelopment.

Warminster Municipal Authority General Manager Tim Hagey told officials that the aquifer under Willow Grove is estimated to be contaminated with upwards of 300,000 ppt of PFAS.

The contamination is not only vast, but a lack of federal or state regulations on PFAS has helped delay some remediation efforts by the military.

The 70 ppt level is not a legally binding limit, which means the military has officially only agreed to reimburse local authorities and their customers to bring PFAS levels down under that level.

"The Navy has done some work for anything above 70 (ppt), but our residents don't want any (PFAS). And, you can't blame any of them for not wanting a standard that is at 70 (ppt) when this chemical bioaccumulates in the body, their families' bodies," Hagey said.

PFAS gained the infamous nickname "forever chemicals" in recent years because the heavy compounds can settle and remain in a person's bloodstream for decades after being ingested.

Despite a near constant push by elected officials at nearly all levels of government for several years, neither the EPA nor the DEP have set hard limits on PFAS in drinking water.

Pennsylvania has been inching toward setting its own limits since 2018 through a task force established in an executive order from Gov. Tom Wolf.

The state completed its first step of that order earlier this year after sampling over 400 potentially contaminated wells to establish a baseline for PFAS contamination.

The two most common chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, were found in over 100 wells, though only two tested over 70 ppt.

The average levels of about 50 wells tested in Bucks and Montgomery counties was around 14 ppt.

Several states have created their own PFAS limits since as early as 2018, starting with New Jersey's limits for 13 ppt of PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont have set similar standards, though the limits vary by each state.

A federal bill giving the EPA two years to develop a national maximum contaminant limit passed a House vote of 241-183 in July.

The bill faces a large partisan divide, gaining yea votes from only 23 Republicans — including Bucks Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Middletown — but has not seen any action on the Senate floor.

The objections to the federal bill came mostly from GOP lawmakers who viewed the bill as over-regulation, most wanting no regulation until a federal study on the long-term health effects of PFAS exposure in humans was completed.

A national multi-site study, which includes areas of Bucks and Montgomery counties contaminated by military base firefighting foams, was delayed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.

While researchers appear to be ready to start recruiting for that study possibly before the end of this year, the researchers originally expected the study to take a few years to complete.

North Wales Water Authority Executive Bob Bender said dedicated funding is key in pushing ahead on remediation, and that lengthy bureaucratic delays endanger future funding.

The local response to PFAS contamination has usually come in the form buying new carbon filtration systems, and most utilities opted to purchase much, if not all, of their water from North Wales since 2016.

State grants are often a resource for utilities to help pay for capital projects, but Bender said those often have a matching requirement.

If North Wales gets a $1 million grant to install new machinery, for example, then that means the authority is contributing up to $500,000 out of pocket.

The state does have a relatively new funding source in Act 101 of 2019, which was introduced by Stephens as an alternative to waiting for federal reimbursement for PFAS clean up.

The bill allows a local Military Installation Remediation and Infrastructure Authority to use state tax dollars as grant money to utilities.

The MIRIA in Horsham allocated just over $15 million last December alone. About $2.8 million went to help promote the redevelopment of the Willow Grove base.

The money has also been awarded to help pay for filtration systems and even rate reductions for customers affected by PFAS.

The state will ultimately seek reimbursement from the federal government for MIRIA funds awarded, instead of forcing residents to wait years for regulations and eventual repayment.

Bender said he wanted to see more dedicated funding programs like Act 101 before time takes attention away from PFAS.

"My fear is that the media is going to move on to the next topic, that the legislature is going to have other issues to deal with and three or five years from now, we're not going to have this level of attention," Bender said.

(c)2021 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.

Visit Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa. at www.buckscountycouriertimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

PFAS foam on the shoreline of Van Etten Lake near Wurtsmith Air Force Base on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
PFAS foam on the shoreline of Van Etten Lake near Wurtsmith Air Force Base on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Garret Ellison, mlive.com/TNS)

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