Navy permit proposal draws public scrutiny

Recent federal legislation will phase out the military’s use of firefighting agents that use a toxic family of chemicals, but there are Whidbey residents using wells or living near groundwater that has already been contaminated who aren’t sure what will be done to help.

Last week’s passage of the National Defense Authorization Act bans the use agents containing per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances, called PFAS, on bases by 2024. However, the bill left the House-Senate committee without its proposed provisions to increase the Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight, set nationwide safety standards and require contaminated sites across the country be cleaned.

On Whidbey, at least 15 wells have been found since 2016 with the compounds present exceeding the EPA’s lifetime health advisory level. The most recent discovery of the chemicals occurred in surface water near the Ault Field base of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, spawning environmental and agricultural concerns.

The chemicals have been linked to health issues related to development, reproductive health, liver and kidney complications and cancer, according to the EPA. The compounds also persist in the body; The half-life of one form of PFAS can be up to 8.5 years, according to the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Four wells adjacent to the contaminated creek, known as Clover Valley Creek, have also shown detectable levels of the compounds, but at levels lower than the lifetime advisory limit, according to Navy officials.

Local activist Rick Abraham is attempting to pressure the Navy to do more to help the people with contaminated drinking water and to clean up the nearby surface water.

In October 2018, personnel on base discovered the presence of two types of PFAS in Clover Valley Creek. The base had sent monthly surface water sampling results from the creek, as required under its permit for industrial stormwater discharges, according to base public affairs officer Thomas Mills.

The air station currently has a new proposed stormwater permit that would require a comprehensive management plan to limit pollutants. Although other officials within the EPA had known, the writers of the draft permit were unaware of PFAS contamination, said agency spokesperson Bill Dunbar.

Abraham and other members of the public who submitted comments on the draft permit made the permit writers aware of the surface water contamination, Dunbar said.

In light of the new information, agency officials are reviewing comments and considering issuing a new permit, he said. He estimated a decision will be made sometime in January.

Since the discovery, base officials said, there have been a number of steps taken to mitigate the problem. The Navy repaired a section of storm drain where the chemicals had first been discovered, and the levels have declined significantly in the area of the repaired pipe, Mills said.

The air station is in the process of installing groundwater monitoring wells to investigate contaminated locations under the air field and contracted more than $600,000 for work in 2020 to assess and repair other areas of the storm lines, he said.

Drinking water sampling takes place biannually for wells that tested above the EPA’s health advisory. However, Abraham argues the department should take action at lower levels. Other states have tighter restrictions on the compounds, and the updated defense authorization act requires the military to abide by those standards when they are more stringent than federal standards.

Abraham said in his discussions with people who live near the creek, he’s learned there hasn’t been the most efficient communication from the Navy. Several of those people, some of whom use the creek for agriculture, found out about the contamination through an article in the Whidbey News-Times, he said.

North Whidbey resident Tim Verschuyl said he learned of the contamination from Abraham and the newspaper. He’s concerned because tidal flow brings the Dugualla Bay’s water to shoreline near his well intake.

Navy officials said that while sampling took place, residents were notified within 24 hours of receiving preliminary results. Result letters were sent once the samples were validated.

PFOA and PFOS are the only types of the chemicals that have EPA guidelines.

One local environmental group is also concerned about the impact the contaminated creek might have on salmon habitat. The water flows off base into Dugualla Bay and Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network wrote to EPA officials regarding his concerns about marine life in the area.

“Chemicals within this family are known to have impacts on some vertebrates that are consistent with the reproductive (and other) problems experienced by Endangered Species Act listed Southern Resident Orca,” Erickson wrote.

Residents using wells around Ault Field with higher levels are currently on bottled water provided by the Navy. The Town of Coupeville recently became the beneficiary of two large granular activated carbon filtration systems, which were paid for and installed by the Navy to eliminate PFAS from the town’s water.

Coupeville’s water did not meet the health advisory limit.

Abraham questions why the situations are being treated differently.

“We don’t know all the answers,” he said. “But there is enough information and studies out there that we need to protect people.”