Navy expands testing of wells for ‘forever chemical’

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island will expand testing for groundwater contamination

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island will expand testing for groundwater contamination related to firefighting foam south of the Area 6 Landfill this year, as the Navy currently believes that is the highest level of contamination.

Because the plume is unpredictable, officials are urging nearby Whidbey Island residents on private well systems to test their water.

“We’ve had some chemical finds on base,” said Phil Nenninger, Naval Facilities Northwest Environmental Restoration supervisor. “Some have released off site, and we’re trying to make sure we’re not impacting our neighbors.”

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency put forth a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion polyfluoroalkyl substance contamination, known as PFAS, found in foam used to extinguish jet-fuel fires. In 2022, the agency updated the advisory to .04 parts per trillion. Because neither perameters are enforcable by the EPA, the Navy still uses the 70 parts guideline.

As a result of the original health advisory, the Navy began sampling just south of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field base. The sampling area was established one mile in the estimated direction of groundwater flow from potential on-base PFAS release areas. In March 2017, June 2017 and January 2019, the Navy expanded the off-base drinking water sampling through Whidbey Island based on the directions of PFAS above 70 parts per trillion in the previous sampling area.

Of the 154 off-base drinking water wells sampled, PFAS was not detected in 144 wells. PFAS was detected below 70 parts per trillion in eight drinking water wells, and PFAS was detected above 70 parts per trillion in two drinking water wells.

Homes near the affected wells have been given clean drinking water, said Capt. Eric Hanks, commanding officer of NAS Whidbey.

“This is about community and making sure that the community is not drinking unsafe water,” said EPA Remedial Project Manager Chan Pongkhamsing. “We’re out here soliciting to the community members, asking them to get their wells sampled.”

The EPA’s current lifetime health advisory levels for PFAS, .004 parts per trillion, is significantly less than what the Navy is currently concerned with.

“It’s a very low number,” Pongkhamsing said. “We understand that, and we have detected PFAS in this area well above that. It is alarming.”

In June 2022, a well tested for PFAS contamination resulted in 151 parts per trillion, 30,000 times what the EPA recommends as safe.

PFAS is known as a “forever chemical,” meaning it will never break apart in nature, but this does not necessarily mean it will remain in nature forever, Pongkhamsing said. The cleanup process, removing the chemicals from the water, is separate from breaking down the chemical itself.

Data on this chemical is new, but according to the National Center for Environmental Health Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, research involving humans suggests that high levels of PFAS may lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant woman, decreases in infant birth weights and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

As of now, no one in the Whidbey Island community has come forward with health defects linked to PFAS exposure, Pongkhamsing said.

That said, it is unknown how many people are impacted, said Nenninger, which is why they are pushing for voluntary citizen sampling for those on private well systems.

Last year’s sampling suggested the contamination may be moving to places different than originally predicted, Nenninger said, but they won’t know until more sampling is complete.

The contamination could be 100 feet underground. It typically moves with gravity, but there are many other factors, such as if the pool itself expands. Testing is still preliminary.

Since the contamination was identified in 2016, the Navy has acted continuously, Nenninger said. Drilling wells, collecting samples and analyzing data takes time.

“Unfortunately, none of us have X-ray vision where we can look down and see what happens,” he said, “so until we collect the samples we just don’t know the full extent.”

Oak Harbor resident Dennis Kjargaard lives 30 feet from the original sampling area, he said, so he has elected to sample his water because of the meeting.

“Water doesn’t follow those lines,” he said.

Another likely reason for the public meeting and expanded testing is for the Navy to avoid lawsuits, he said. He’s less worried about his own health than that of his three grandchildren.

“I’m 73, so what do I care?” he said. “Well, I got a bigger care. Giving someone who’s 4 years old a problem rather than me.”

While the Navy still uses the toxic firefighting foam, AFFF, in emergencies, they use water in training, Hanks said. For emergencies, they are much more stringent as to when and where it gets released. Then, they observe it and make sure it’s discarded properly.

“What we’re doing here in Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Island County and the state of Washington is at the forefront of a lot of the investigation on these types of systems,” Hanks said. “I see this as a collection of experts that really care about the communities and working.”

Kjargaard understands the complexity of the issue that the Navy faces.

“I think if there was an easy solution, they would do it,” he said, “but what is the solution?”

The EPA is still in the investigation phase, Pongkhamsing said. After enough data is collected because of expanded Navy and voluntary citizen testing, it will assess the technology and evaluate cleanup options. Then comes the planning and implementing phases, and finally it will apply land use controls as needed once the cleanup is complete.

This could take time, Nenninger said.

“Our hope is that nobody’s impacted, nobody else, but let’s make sure,” he said. “That’s the approach that we’re taking and then once we know people are safe, we can continue to investigate and figure out how big is it, and then look at what technologies are available.”

Property owners may schedule a drinking water well sampling appointment by calling and leaving a message at 1-844-WHI-PFAS (1-844-944-7327), or by emailing Please include your name, property address and telephone number.