Looking below the surface
This story was first published on May 1, 2016.
When firefighting foam is used to put out fuel fires on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst — during training exercises or emergencies — the brilliant white chemical solution can cover the ground like snow.
But what happens to it next is a murky gray.
The joint base is in the midst of an investigation into the potential dangers of the use of the foam as part of an assessment the U.S. Department of Defense is conducting at hundreds of military bases across the country.
The aqueous film-forming foams have been used by the military for decades, but the chemical byproducts of the foam have been associated with health effects for humans and animals only in the past 15 years.
The chemicals in question are two perfluorinated compounds. Perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as PFOS, has been associated with bladder cancer and thyroid disease, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, has been linked by some studies to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and several other illnesses.
The chemicals are unregulated by the government, but are of growing concern to multiple industries and government agencies. The EPA has investigated their health effects and prevalence in large water utilities nationwide, private industry has phased them out of products ranging from Teflon pans to food packaging, and the military is committed to finding out how much of the chemicals have leached into the environment — and potentially drinking water — from firefighting foams.
Two documents provided by the military or the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and reviewed by this news organization, showed an estimated 230,186 to 338,778 gallons of foam were used at 34 sites over 46 years on the property that makes up the combined base. That estimate is based on the memory of personnel rather than inventory records.
The news organization filed an Freedom of Information Act request with the joint base on April 11 asking for purchase orders of firefighting foam used on the base for the last five years. Officials responded the same day with a letter stating a decision on the request will be made by May 9. That decision hasn’t been announced.
In January 2015, water was tested for the military by SES Construction & Fuel Services, a Tennessee-based company. SES was hired to test for PFOS and PFOA in the groundwater and soil at four sites suspected to have been exposed to the firefighting foam. Perfluorinated chemicals were found at all four:
- At a hangar north of the base’s three primary runways, which form a triangle, PFOS was found in groundwater at 580 parts per billion. In 2009, the EPA established a provisional health advisory of .2 parts per billion for PFOS in drinking water. Although it’s meant to protect against short-term health effects from water directly consumed by individuals, the figure is also commonly used to assess levels found in groundwater.
- Using the 2009 number, the level of PFOS is 2,900 times higher than the EPA’s guidance level.
- Analysis of an old fire station found PFOS at 130 ppb and PFOA at 6 ppb. The PFOA level is 15 times higher than the EPA’s 2009 guidance of .4 ppb in drinking water.
- In a lined, man-made pond meant to catch foam accidentally released from hangars, PFOS levels were 48,500 times higher than the EPA’s guidance numbers, and PFOA was 550 times higher. PFOS was found in groundwater below the pond at 1.4 ppb and PFOA at less than .4 ppb, suggesting the pond’s lining is working. But according to the report, wastewater from the pond is still conveyed to the wastewater treatment plant, which ultimately discharges its treated water to the land application basins.
Following the January 2015 testing, a preliminary assessment was completed in August 2015 for the Air Force by contractor HydroGeoLogic. It looked for other potentially contaminated sites on the base and listed numerous waterways and underground water supplies called aquifers that could be transporting the chemicals into areas where they’d be consumed by humans. It found an additional 30 sites that could be contaminated. They will be tested in August.
Similar use of firefighting foams at the other bases across the country has led to the contamination of drinking water used by on-base personnel and residents in nearby, off-base communities. Despite that, joint base officials said it’s too early to test off-base water supplies.
The expanded testing program scheduled for August at the base will try to identify all sites on the base where perfluorinated compounds have worked their way into the groundwater, and that will provide the data needed to assess risk for human exposure, according to officials with the joint base and the state DEP.
“The preliminary assessment did not identify any immediate threats that would warrant sampling off base,” Staff Sgt. Caitlin Jones, a public affairs officer with the joint base, said in an email. “Sample results from the pending site investigations will help confirm if (perfluorinated compounds) are present. ... If the investigation shows a possibility (the PFC) can move off base and potentially contaminate drinking water, subsequent sampling and analysis will be performed.”
While the preliminary assessment didn’t identify any immediate threat, the 504-page document prepared by Texas-based HydroGeoLogic traced the history of widespread use of firefighting foam on the base.
The report found that not only was the foam used at various fire training areas, but it was also released by fire suppression systems in the base’s aircraft hangars and at sites of vehicle crashes and testing programs. The amount of foam that was released is uncertain since estimates in the report were often based on the memory of workers rather than inventory reports.
In one instance, a former fire chief who oversaw one of the base’s fire training areas from 1973 until 1982 estimated that between 20,800 and 31,200 gallons of foam were sprayed onto a grassy area every year during fire training exercises.
However, the amount of foam used in other areas — including a fire training area where it’s still being used — couldn’t be determined by HydoGeoLogic’s review of military documents and personnel interviews.
The Air Force has said it’s working to limit the use of foams containing perfluorinated compounds and will phase them out. The Air Force has established a $25 million program to replace such foams in firefighting vehicles, according to a statement from the military.
When releases did occur, the report found the foam primarily ended up in two places. It was often sprayed onto a grassy area during fire training exercises. There, it was absorbed into the ground or ran off into area waterways. But in other releases, such as dumps of hangar fire suppression systems, it typically went down storm drains into sewer systems and ended up in the base’s wastewater treatment plant.
When he was interviewed for the preliminary assessment, the manager of the base’s only active wastewater treatment plant said large amounts of foam that come into the facility cause water to bubble up 6 to 10 feet high and blow “all over the place, making a huge mess.” The report quotes the manager as saying the foam washes over containment walls and must be sprayed back into the holding tanks, although it occasionally escapes to a nearby grassy area.
The foam also apparently survives the treatment process, the report concluded.
Treated water from the facility is piped to the southwest portion of the base, where it is deposited into 12 basins and left to seep into groundwater or evaporate. After foam incidents at the plant, personnel said in the report that white foam can be seen on the surface of the water and a white substance, thought to be remnants of the foam, sometimes remains at the bottom of the basins.
The manager estimated that about 50 such releases have occurred since the plant opened in 1994. The most recent occurred on Jan. 15, 2015, when 1,400 gallons of foam were accidentally released from a hangar. Estimates of releases prior to 1994 weren’t provided in the report, which said a previous wastewater treatment plant on the north side of the base released its treated water into a stream called South Run.
While unfamiliar with specific sites at the joint base, experts interviewed by this news organization said perfluorinated compounds are nearly always found in groundwater where firefighting foams are used.
Christopher Higgins, an associate professor with the Colorado School of Mines’ department of civil and environmental engineering, has studied how perfluorinated compounds move in the environment and accumulate in plants and worms since the early 2000s. He said the amount of PFOA and PFOS generated by foam varies, depending on the chemical composition of the foam, how much time has passed, and other variables.
Some foams, created before fluorine-based compounds were introduced, may not contain any perfluorinated compounds.
But, Higgins said, if a documented release of fluorine-containing foam did take place, “it’s a pretty good bet that there’s going to be (perfluorinated compounds) at some concentration.”
He also said the chemicals’ unusual properties make them tougher to investigate than more widely understood contaminants. They’re highly “mobile” and travel swiftly in water, but also have a tendency to accumulate in animals, Higgins explained.
“I would say these are probably some of the more challenging sites for environmental engineers,” he said.
Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University, has been studying the chemicals for decades. Like Higgins, Field said her experience has shown where there’s foam, there are almost always perfluorinated compounds. Her research team has collected samples from 15 military sites around the country to date and found PFOS and PFOA at 14 of them.
“In our experience ... anywhere you see repeated historical practice with (firefighting foams), you have potential for higher concentrations,” Field said.
If PFOS and PFOA are prevalent in streams or groundwater below the base, one of the questions for the military will be whether they have migrated in significant amounts to any water bodies where they could be consumed by humans or wildlife.
The August 2015 preliminary assessment looked at that possibility by examining the waterways that receive runoff from sites on the base where firefighting foam was or is being used. The report most commonly references a series of streams that receive runoff from the base’s triangle of runways, where many former fire training exercises and hangar releases took place.
There, streams named Bowkers Run and Larkins Run drain into Jacks Run, which combines with Newbold Run to feed Little Pine Lake in eastern Pemberton Township. The north branch of the Rancocas Creek is also mentioned as a waterway that receives base runoff.
Also mentioned in the report was South Run, a stream on the north end of the base near the Cookstown section of New Hanover that received the treated water from the former wastewater treatment plant prior to its closing in 1994.
On the Lakehurst side of the base in Ocean County, the report names the Manapaqua and Ridgeway branches of Tom’s River, which combine to form Pine Lake, as waterbodies receiving runoff from sites that used the foam.
In total, the report states that runoff from 34 base sites could expose humans to perfluorinated compounds when they swim or eat fish caught in downstream waterways.
The report also analyzes potential impacts to aquifers, which are large underground lakes that supply drinking water to public utilities and private wells.
Below the joint base, the principal aquifers are the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy, known as the PRM, and the Kirkwood-Cohansey. The preliminary assessment quotes base personnel as saying the PRM isn’t affected by its proximity to the base because it is about 1,000 feet below ground, but the more shallow Kirkwood-Cohansey could be subject to contamination.
That system can be as shallow as 5 feet to 15 feet below the surface, and is heavily fed by surface waters and runoff, the report stated. In the preliminary assessment, investigators wrote that contamination of this aquifer could be a problem for some of the base’s 18 water systems.
While the base’s larger systems, such as those serving the majority of McGuire and Dix personnel, draw their water primarily from the deep PRM aquifer, others draw from the Kirkwood-Cohansey. That includes two systems on the Lakehurst portion of the base, which serve about 3,200 people, Air Force and EPA documentation showed.
“The Hill and Helo systems, being surfical (near-surface) aquifers, are subject to potential contamination,” the report stated.
Those systems haven’t been tested for perfluorinated compounds, said Jones, the joint base spokeswoman.
“The (base’s) water system supplies are not adjacent to any known potentially contaminated sites,” she said.
Off-base water systems
There are about 1,200 private wells and 87 municipal wells within a 2-mile radius of the Joint Base, according to state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna.
Many of the bigger utilities drawing their water from the PRM have tested for perfluorinated compounds in the past several years as part of the EPA’s “Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.”
These tests, performed nationwide by all water utilities serving more than 10,000 people, showed no levels of PFOA or PFOS for the Pemberton Township and Dix main system in Burlington County, or the Jackson, Manchester and Toms River authorities in Ocean County.
Tests haven’t been conducted on water systems serving fewer than 10,000 people. On base, that includes 17 of 18 the water supplies. Off base, it includes the Lakehurst Borough Water Department and several smaller water systems, such as those serving individual apartment buildings and mobile home communities.
According to a water quality report from the Lakehurst Borough Water Department, that utility uses two wells that draw water from the Cohansey part of the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and serves about 2,200 people. The edge of the borough is about 2,000 feet from the closest site of known foam release on the base. Lakehurst Municipal Clerk Bernadette Dugan said she hadn’t seen the report, but was requesting a copy from the military.
The Browns Mills residences that are closest to the base are less than 1 mile from the area where treated water suspected to contain foam drains into the groundwater.
Despite the findings of the preliminary assessment, water regulators aren’t raising concerns about off-base waterways or drinking water. EPA and state DEP officials say they’re comfortable with the Air Force’s role in the driver’s seat of the investigation and are assisting the military.
Haiyesh Shah, the DEP’s case manager for the joint base, said both environmental agencies are providing technical support, expertise and input to the Air Force and Department of Defense. Shah said the military submits work plans and reports for the DEP and EPA to approve.
“They will not implement any investigation unless the EPA and DEP approve it first,” Shah said.
Shah added that plans for expanded testing in August are expected to be submitted for review by June, and that it will take 45 days for regulators to act on them.
Because there are at least seven current and five former Superfund hazardous waste sites on the joint base, the EPA can compel the military to take on-base samples when hazardous materials are released or if there is the substantive threat of a release, EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said.
The agency hasn’t ordered any on-base or off-base tests because the government hasn’t officially identified perfluorinated chemicals as hazardous substances, and the EPA doesn’t believe there’s an “imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare,” Rodriguez said.
Regardless of where the unregulated chemical at the joint base presently sits on the EPA’s radar, Rodriguez said the Air Force is taking the potential perfluorinated compound contamination chemicals seriously. He said the Air Force notified the EPA it will assess whether perfluorinated chemicals from the base could impact human health and assess any other environmental concerns.
“As such, the Air Force will provide EPA with documents and information relevant to the investigation of the joint base, and EPA intends to provide comments and advice to the Air Force throughout that investigation,” Rodriguez said.
The Air Force and DEP agree with the EPA that off-base testing isn’t warranted because the Air Force is in the early stages of the investigation and definite risks to water supplies haven’t been established.
Officials with the Pineland Commission said they’re being kept apprised of the investigation and will provide input through the DEP.
According to the DEP, the groundwater at the four tested base sites where perfluorinated compounds were found in levels above the EPA’s safety advisories only serves as a snapshot of the situation. Other areas, such as the 30 other sites identified in the preliminary assessment, still need to be tested, officials said.
“This is the initial phase of the investigation, and we need to get more information before we jump into any type of conclusions,” the DEP’s Hajna said. “We know ‘A.’ Now we have to look at ‘B.’ ”
When it comes to perfluorinated chemicals, the military has a growing problem on its hands.
After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set provisional health advisories for the unregulated chemicals in 2009, the DOD worked to “identify sites where releases may have occurred and take necessary response action,” Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Badger said.
By 2014, the DOD had a list of 664 fire and crash training sites where aqueous film-forming foams containing perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as PFOS, or perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, could have been used.
The sites spanned the country and multiple military branches. In New Jersey, 10 sites were identified at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst; two were identified at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck; and one was found at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Trenton.
But if the joint base is any indication, the 664 figure could significantly underestimate the number of sites where foam may have been released on military installations. An August 2015 preliminary assessment of foam use at the joint base found an additional 24 sites where it was likely released into the environment, including hangars and crash areas.
The federal government budgeted $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2016 for cleanup programs nationwide, which includes investigations of PFOA and PFOS, according to Badger. About $30 million of that is designated for preliminary assessments or site inspections, the first steps in these investigations.
According to a March 16 news release by the Air Force, about 200 military installations are being evaluated nationwide.
Drinking water has been tested at 30 bases. Four of them were found to be contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals above the EPA’s provisional health advisory levels.
In its release, the Air Force wrote that it “immediately responded to protect the people’s drinking water with some combination of bottled water, filtration or alternate water sources (at those sites). We then began work to identify and implement a long-term solution to protect human health and the environment.”
The four bases that have been identified as having issues with drinking water are the Horsham Air Guard Station in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; the Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire; the Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York; and the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
In Horsham, the contamination is part of a larger issue involving two former naval facilities. The investigation there has found PFOS and PFOA have contaminated nearly 100 public and private drinking water wells in the area, and some residents believe the chemicals have made them sick.
In the public wells there, PFOS levels reached as high as 1.09 parts per billion, or more than five times the EPA’s provisional health advisory levels. The amount in private wells has reached as high as 3.8 ppb for PFOS, or 19 times higher than the EPA’s provisional health advisory, and 5 ppb for PFOA, or more than 12 times higher than the EPA’s guidance.
The military has agreed to spend about $19 million there to investigate the extent of the contamination, connect about 80 contaminated private wells to public water, and install filtration systems at affected public wells.
Personnel at the Horsham Air Guard Station were exposed to even higher levels. In August 2014, testing of the station’s water fountains found PFOS at 60 times the EPA’s guidance level. The station’s 500 personnel have been receiving bottled water since, base personnel said.
Water regulators have said there’s no hard data yet to show off-base water utilities or private wells need to be tested at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Badger said the criteria for water testing varies by base.
“Each site is unique, and depending on the conditions at the particular location, drinking water may be tested,” he said. “If groundwater sampling indicates groundwater that is being used as a drinking water source has been impacted, the department can test the drinking water.”
And Larry Hajna, a spokesman with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency has been involved in the Air Force’s investigation of perfluorinated compounds at the 42,000-acre joint base, but the agency’s experts believe off-base testing isn’t warranted yet.
“We know there’s a great deal of distance between (investigated on-base sites) and where the base property ends,” Hajna said.
Not everyone agrees.
An official with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental nonprofit based in Bristol, Pennsylvania, criticized the response of the military and environmental agencies to potential contamination at the joint base.
″(Imminent response) is not recommended in the report. Why not?” Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Riverkeeper Network, said in an email. “It is startling that the military has not taken a more aggressive course of action to address this huge contamination issue.”
Mary Chepiga, head of the hydrological simulation program at the U.S. Geological Survey’s New Jersey Science Water Center, said the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer that underlies much of the joint base, and is a source of drinking water for many public and private wells, is particularly subject to contamination.
“The Kirkwood-Cohansey would have more contaminant problems because it’s over a large area, and it’s at the surface, where all the contaminants come from,” Chepiga said.
However, she said, analysis of water contamination is complicated. Investigators need to take into account groundwater flow, underground clay deposits, interactions with other water sources, and other factors that would determine how a contaminant would move through the aquifer, which is essentially an underground waterway.
“You have to put all of that information together ... into a conceptual model,” Chepiga said. “Then (you can estimate) where it came from, where it’s going, and when it’s going to get there.”
Meanwhile, EPA and DEP officials said that they’re comfortable there is no imminent threat to the water at the joint base and that the Air Force is proceeding correctly.
″(The Air Force) is moving ahead with the investigative process to our satisfaction and in the logical progression that has been established for any investigation of a contaminated site,” the DEP’s Hajna said.