Steven Vernik walks through the home he owns in the Hartsville section of Warwick. His family moved to a new home in Buckingham after learning their private drinking water well was contaminated with high levels of PFAS. They still are trying to sell this home. [WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / CORRESPONDENT]

Five years after discovery, PFAS concerns continue

Despite actions taken by the federal government, residents and town leaders say chemical concerns are still impacting finances, the area's reputation, and potentially, public health.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the sale of the Vernik home, which occurred between our interview with Steve Vernik in mid-March and the story’s publication on April 21.

Steve Vernik’s home sat empty for months, passed over again and again until he eventually sold it earlier this month, for $25,000 less than he originally sought.

There’s little doubt in his mind it’s because of the toxic chemicals that were found in his drinking water, bubbling up from a private well on the property, located at the southern tip of Warwick. 

And the costs didn’t stop there. He also installed a $9,000 whole-house water filtration unit and drank bottled water for two years, waiting for someone to take responsibility. Seven months ago he gave up and bought a second home, fives miles away, to escape lingering fears his two young children would still somehow be exposed.

“This is one of the biggest financial hits I ever would have imagined I'd take in my life,” Vernik said. “Paying two mortgages and having to get a swing loan to get out … just brought me down to my knees in a sense. At the same time, I can't risk my family's health.”

Vernik personifies the real-world costs of a chemical contamination that continues to fester, five years after it was first discovered along the border of Bucks and Montgomery counties. The source, or at least the largest known source, is a trio of current and former military bases in Warminster and Horsham, where firefighting chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were used for decades.

Steven Vernik stands in his home in Hartsville, where his family discovered high levels of PFAS contamination in their private water well. They have since moved to Buckingham, and trying to sell this house. [WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / CORRESPONDENT]

By any normal measure, the military’s response to the contamination has been substantial. The Navy says it has spent $58 million, $35 million of which was used to filter or provide alternative water for all drinking water sources that exceed a 70 parts per trillion (ppt) safety limit recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. That includes 15 public water wells in Warminster, Warrington and Horsham, along with one supply well on the Horsham Air Guard Station and about 250 private residential wells.

The Navy also has poured $23 million into environmental testing and studies, and has taken some interim measures to try and stop the chemicals from leaving the the former Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove and Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster. The Air National Guard has also spent millions dealing with contamination at the Horsham base.

But PFAS aren’t normal chemicals. Synthetically engineered to knock down fuel fires, they’re extremely difficult to get rid of. They stick around for decades, traveling farther and wider than expected, and accumulate inside the bodies of those who consume them.

Yet the Department of Defense, both locally and at other PFAS sites across the country, has largely kept its wallet closed for any situations that don’t involve clear cut drinking water exposures above the EPA’s safety limit. After several states created regulations to force the military to do more, including increased environmental cleanup, the military pushed back by filing lawsuits or saying it had legal immunity from state orders.

Local officials such as Chris Crockett, chief environmental officer with private water utility Aqua PA, say that approach means PFAS problems are slipping through the cracks in Pennsylvania.

“If you don’t stop it at the source, this stuff goes everywhere,” Crockett said. “It goes into the ground, somebody pulls it out in their private well, it ultimately makes it down to the next community’s wastewater discharge, which then makes it into a stream, which then makes into the next drinking water intake of the next community. So we really want to contain this so it stops hopscotching all around.”

Crockett is anxiously awaiting a study announced two years ago by the Navy and U.S. Geological Survey to analyze the area’s waterways and establish how far PFAS had traveled from the bases. By conducting its own PFAS sampling, Crockett says Aqua already believes the chemicals are traveling 22 miles through a network of streams and creeks to a drinking water intake along the Neshaminy Creek in Middletown. A treatment plant there processes 11 million gallons a day to serve to 38,000 Aqua drinking water customers.

Prior to treatment, the chemicals from the Neshaminy reached as high as 67 ppt in July 2017, just below the EPA health limit.

“We know that it lasts a century in the environment,” Crockett said. “In the time it takes to go 22 miles, nothing is going to happen to it.”

The company has also been hit with high PFAS levels in groundwater wells in Hatboro, which neighbors Horsham, and even in Upper Dublin, some five miles away from the nearest base, with no obvious connections through surface waterways.

“It’s hard to tell what the influence was,” of the bases, Crockett said. “How far would that move in 50 years? It’s something we wish we had that information from USGS to see.”

In an email, USGS hydrologist Lisa Senior said that the agency expects to release preliminary results of the study by the end of 2019.

“This work is projected to continue for some time, with additional data, analyses, and findings to come,” Senior said.“The USGS activities do not include measurement of PFAS concentrations in groundwater or streams, which are being done by others.”

The military has not claimed responsibility for PFAS contamination in Hartsville, where a half-dozen homes have exceeded the EPA’s health advisory for the chemicals. It instead has suggested firefighting foams containing the chemicals may have been used by the Hartsville Fire Station. Soil levels of PFOS, the primary PFAS chemical found in foams, is higher at the station's property than naturally found, but lower than areas where heavy foam use is known to have occurred. [FILE]

Vernik’s former home is closer to the contamination than Aqua’s supplies, just about three miles from both the Horsham and Warminster bases. But that’s still distance enough to also be on the outside looking in. The military has not claimed responsibility for PFAS contamination in the Hartsville neighborhood, where six other homes also exceeded the EPA’s health advisory.

The military has instead pointed to the nearby Hartsville Fire Station, suggesting firefighting foams containing the chemicals may have been used there. The EPA has sampled the property's soil, and according to results obtained by this news organization, found perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), the primary PFAS in firefighting foams, at 47 and 29 parts per billion in two areas.

Those levels are above typical PFOS soil levels of about 1 ppb, but are well below levels often seen in areas of heavy firefighting foam use, which can reach into the thousands of ppb. According to an environmental report from the Willow Grove base last year, soil levels reached as high as 98,000 ppb for PFOS near a former fire and rescue building off Route 611, more than 2,000 times higher than the levels found in Hartsville.

In an email sent by Rick Rogers, an associate director for drinking water in the EPA's regional offices, and obtained by this news organization, Rogers called the Hartsville results "inconclusive," because the agency does not have a firm grasp on how PFOS moves from soil to groundwater. Terri White, the EPA's regional deputy director for communications, told this news organization the EPA was scheduled to test groundwater below the fire station this month to learn more.

"EPA has not made a determination because there is insufficient data. EPA is looking into all potential sources," White wrote.

State Sen. Maria Collett, D-12, of Lower Gwynedd, is not impressed with anyone involved, adding she believes the EPA also shares blame for not putting its foot down.

“That’s where we’re at, letters going back and forth with blame-shifting and finger-pointing, instead of anyone actually taking responsibility,” Collett said.

Horsham in limbo

Problems remain even at the epicenter of the contamination.

William Walker, township manager of Horsham, says collateral damage from the issue is extensive. Before the PFAS crisis hit, the township was slated to receive 860 acres of the former Willow Grove base from the Navy. In 2012, the township formed the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority to map out plans for the unprecedented turnover of land, which is larger than all of the township’s existing open space combined.

Plans call for housing, a school, a festival ground, a hotel and office park, and even a town center, netting as much as $4.7 million in new municipal taxes, which would represent a 22% increase over the town’s current annual revenue of $22 million.

But all that was put on hold when the PFAS issue broke open in 2014. Last year, the Navy excavated about 3,000 tons of the most highly contaminated soil from the former base and tried to dispose of it, but was turned down by a New Jersey landfill. As of late winter, the soil sat in piles under a tarp on the base, as the Navy searched for a hazardous waste landfill to take it, even though the chemicals remain unregulated.

Horsham is in no hurry to make contaminated soil its problem.

“Redevelopment is really important to us,” Walker said. “But we’re not going to move forward and accept any land until we know it’s clean … we’re not going to sacrifice public health for development.”

The problems go even deeper, striking at the heart of Horsham as a desirable, prospering community. In 2011, the township was named one of the top 100 places to live in America by CNN Money Magazine, and climbed into the top 50 in 2013.

The following year, just as the contamination was discovered, Horsham was also named one of the top places to buy a home in Pennsylvania and among the “Top 10 Cities on the Rise” in the state by a prominent personal finance website.

Now, Walker says, raters like CNN have moved on.

“The last time we talked with them, they had said, ‘You have an issue in your town and that’s the base,’” Walker said. “Nothing’s happening.”

Credit rating agency Moody’s has taken notice, too. While the town has kept its Aa1 credit rating, the second highest, “Moody tells us we would have triple ‘A’ if the base wasn’t just sitting there,” Walker said.

Horsham Township Manager Bill Walker speaks during a meeting on water quality issues held in the township in 2016. [CHLOE ELMER / FILE]

There are other fiscal impacts for the area. Concerned that its customers could have been drinking and building up PFAS in their bodies for decades, and skeptical of the EPA’s 70 ppt advisory as other scientists called for lower standards, the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority approved a plan in 2016 to remove the chemicals entirely from its water supply.

With the Navy only agreeing to buy filters for five wells that exceed 70 ppt, the authority decided to pay its own way to filter five more and also buy replacement water from the neighboring North Wales Water Authority. In 2016, Horsham was awarded a $10 million, taxpayer funded state grant to help with costs, but still faces about $1.2 million in annual costs to keep the water clean of any PFAS, according to business manager Tina O’Rourke.

The plan also has a troubling downside. At the heart of contamination on the former Willow Grove base, groundwater testing has shown PFAS in excess of 300,000 ppt, or more than 4,000 times the EPA advisory level for drinking water. Without on-site cleanup or pumping, O’Rourke worries the authority’s wells, located off the bases, will increasingly draw the contaminated plume outward and under the community’s feet.

“Are we pulling that water?” O’Rourke asked during a recent interview. “A concern of mine would be how quickly they could start to actually perform some kind of remediation.”

Exacerbating the problem is that military records and accounting appear to show about 140 private well owners in the impacted communities have PFAS in their wells between 40 and 70 ppt. That means their water is slightly below the EPA advisory, but that the military won’t pay to hook their homes into the nearest public water system.

In Warminster, municipal authority manager Tim Hagey says costs have also added up after the utility implemented its own zero-tolerance plan for the chemicals. Originally, the Navy verbally agreed to pay for filtration on six public water wells, Hagey said, but later reneged on two that are located not far from Vernik’s old home in Hartsville, after the wells dropped below 70 ppt.

The authority initially estimated that putting filters on all its remaining wells would add up to $18 million in costs. Hagey says the authority is first piloting a study using synthetic resin filters in place of carbon, which would be more economical. How much Warminster will ultimately pay is yet to be determined.

“We’re hoping to spend significantly less than that, if we’re permitted to use resin only,” Hagey said.

Steve Vernick installed this filtration system in his Hartsville home after learning of high PFAS contamination in its private water well. [WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / CORRESPONDENT]

Limited cleanup occurring

While military officials say robust cleanup efforts can’t begin until the contamination is studied further, they have taken some efforts to stem the flow of PFAS from the bases.

A primary point of interest is contaminated water leaving the northern part of the Air Guard Station and former Willow Grove base, which environmental testing has shown dumps thousands of parts per trillion of PFAS into Park Creek. The waterway then connects to the Little Neshaminy Creek, which runs right by Hartsville on its way to the main Neshaminy. Municipal officials say there’s some indication the Little Neshaminy might leak PFAS into the groundwater near Hartsville, potentially impacting homes there. Asked about the possibility, Navy officials referred questions to the USGS.

In 2017, the Navy capped artesian wells near the northern boundary of Willow Grove and attempted to seal up nearby stormwater outfalls. Both the Navy and Air National Guard have expanded retention basins in the area, and the Air Guard even contracted with the Warminster authority to install a temporary treatment system to filter water leaving the base.

Both bases have also used cameras to inspect their sewer lines to identify and repair areas where contaminated groundwater could be infiltrating. At the Willow Grove base, the Navy is beginning a pilot study of a groundwater treatment system, and at the former Warminster base, it added carbon to an existing groundwater treatment system to catch PFAS.

Municipal officials give them some credit, with Walker saying he thinks the military’s local environmental managers are hamstrung by national policies. He says they’ve even stuck their necks out to take actions like the soil removal.

“DOD didn’t tell them to do that. EPA didn’t tell them to do that,” Walker said of the efforts of the bases’ local managers. “I think where a lot of the frustration comes from, is Washington and Harrisburg.”

Yet municipal officials also say the work to date is a proverbial drop in the bucket.

For example, the Air Guard admits its water filter is quickly overwhelmed during storms, and that contaminated groundwater leaks back into the runoff after leaving the base. The Navy’s pilot filter will pump just 20 gallons a minute, according to O’Rourke, and Hagey said the Navy’s groundwater treatment at the Warminster base adds up to only about 200,000 gallons per day, equal to just one of his authority’s public wells.

Officials say the efforts to cap wells and outfalls mean the PFAS contamination is just pushed back beneath the surface, its destination unknown.

“The water has to go somewhere,” Crockett said. “If it isn’t going to the creek, where is it going?”

For its part, the Navy defended its activities, saying it has worked with state and federal regulators and has complied with applicable laws. Officials from the Air National Guard did not respond to an inquiry by deadline.

"The Navy takes this responsibility seriously and wants to ensure that it completes this action correctly," Willie Lin, environmental coordinator for the Navy, wrote in an email. "The Navy believes it has implemented the base cleanup effort with an appropriate level of care and concern for all stakeholders, using all available technologies without established regulatory clean-up standards."

For all his troubles, Vernik empathizes with the military on the scope of the PFAS problem it faces.

“I'm part of a situation that's too big to even solve, which is part of the reason why I can't be so mad at any particular person, because it's so bad,” Vernik said.

But just like the local community leaders, a little dose of empathy isn't a cure for the area's water woes.

"The (Navy) has a lot of jets that are worth a good few billion dollars, and they keep getting more,” Vernick said. “How about you skip a year of buying four of them, and you take care of this water situation?”