Hospital water ‘perfectly safe for all’ says CEO

WhidbeyHealth’s top administrator says its hospital water is safe to drink and that there is no need to conduct further testing for possible contaminants.

“The water at the hospital is perfectly safe for all our patients and employees, and I drink it daily,” WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes said.

In recent months, Greenbank resident Rick Abraham has commented at numerous meetings overseeing the non-profit health system and the Town of Coupeville that officials are failing to fully test for numerous potentially hazardous chemicals in firefighting foam used by the Navy.

Abraham also contends officials are not being transparent about water testing results and that they’re failing to take steps to remove the contaminants.

Called perfluoroalkyl substances, they are considered “emerging contaminants” because they may affect human health or the environment. They haven’t been commonly monitored in the past.

In communities near bases around the country, including NAS Whidbey Island, the Navy has been testing wells to check the levels of two chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid.

Wells in a radius of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field Base and Outlying Field Coupeville were tested in the past year for free.

As of July 21, 2017, the Navy has obtained 219 samples for analysis. Of the total 219 results received, 10 results are above the EPA lifetime health advisory level established for perfluorooctane sulfonate and/or perfluorooctanoic acid.

The Navy received 113 results from properties near OLF Coupeville and seven drinking well results are above the health advisory level.

The Navy received 106 results from properties near Ault Field and three sample drinking well results — including one duplicate — exceed the level.

Abraham contends testing has not been thorough enough in many cases because a broader range of perfluoroalkyl substances needs to be checked. He also says proper steps aren’t being taken to remove the contaminants from any public drinking water provided by the Town of Coupeville, which includes WhidbeyHealth Medical Center.

Test results from the Navy and independent testing by the town, however, showed that the level of perfluorooctanoic acid in the water is below the advisory level and even lower after the water from the two different wells is blended.

During the August meeting of the Whidbey Island Public Hospital District Board of Commissioners, Abraham told the board during public comments: “People come to this hospital, with its new $50 million wing, to get well and have children, not to drink water contaminated (with) chemicals that accumulate in the body and are linked to a host of health effects.”

After the meeting, George Senerth, executive director of facilities, told Abraham that “pre” and “post” tests of the medical center’s water quality were underway.

Last week, he explained the results, which he termed “just fine.”

Water coming from Coupeville’s water system was tested before going into the hospital and then tested after moving through the building at several sites, such as drinking foundations, patient rooms, cafeteria, ice machines and coffee makers, Senerth explained.

The hospital uses filters for “hard” water to remove pipe corrosion and it uses filters recommended by various equipment systems, he said.

“The water coming from the town is fine,” Sterneth said. “That’s our source.”

Abraham has spoken about the history of the chemicals in water in the past at various meetings. He says he spent a career running organizations and providing assistance to organizations responding to toxic pollution problems.

“What has happened to you has happened in other communities,” he told Central Whidbey residents in December gathered to learn about the Navy’s initial findings and ongoing testing.

In a March 17, 2017 letter to the editor in the Whidbey News-Times, Grethe Cammermeyer, who sits on both boards of WhidbeyHealth and Island County Public Health, chided Abraham as being an alarmist without all the facts at hand.

“There are times when speaking out is important and relevant, other times it is just blowing off hot air,” Cammermeyer wrote. “The Navy continues to ask property owners for permission to test their wells.

Once wells have been tested in the potential area of influence, the Navy will evaluate final resolution for affected property owners.

She also wrote that the Navy wasn’t withholding information but rather was periodically informing the community on the latest information regarding water testing.

“The health of the Whidbey Island citizens is the reason for the Board of Health and WhidbeyHealth. We continue to monitor and act when appropriate or possible.

“Please have adequate information rather than causing unnecessary chaos with misinformation.