This week, Bucks and Montgomery county officials went to Washington seeking more resources to rectify massive water contamination caused by the Department of Defense.
At a meeting organized by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, officials from federal agencies met with leaders from affected communities near the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Willow Grove and the Horsham Air Guard station.
For decades, toxic firefighting foam used at military installations leaked into groundwater from Navy and Air National Guard bases near the Bucks-Montgomery county line. High levels of the contaminant PFC were later detected in public and private wells.
While red tape is holding up health testing for residents affected, the group hashed out a plan for moving forward.
At the meeting, the Department of Defense said federal laws prohibit it from paying the $20 million to $30 million over five years needed for health studies, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered another option.
“The CDC is going to work with legislators to find that funding,” said Christian Jones, director of water and sewer for Warrington Township, who attended the meeting.
That commitment from the CDC is an important milestone, said Casey in a statement. Some studies link the PFCs to higher rates of some cancers.
State Rep. Todd Stephens said he’s disappointed the Department of Defense isn’t footing the bill for a remedy.
“As far as I’m concerned, the federal government is the polluter and the federal government ought to be the one to pay for the remediation and all the health studies and blood tests,” he said, pointing out private companies responsible for spreading the same contaminants in other states have ponied up.
“Water rate payers have also borne much of the costs to filter the contaminant out of municipal drinking water systems,” according to Stephens and Warminster Municipal Authority Manager Timothy Hagey.
Officials at the meeting also discussed residents’ concerns about the ongoing presence of PFCs in their water, at levels below what the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.
“The EPA’s threshold might be appropriate for the overwhelming majority of Americans who have not endured decades of increased exposure to these chemicals,” said Stephens, but said for people who may already have high levels in their bodies that might not be the case. PFCs are called “emerging contaminants,” meaning many of the long-term health effects of exposure to small amounts are unknown.
According to several attendees, local officials plan to petition the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to create its own, lower benchmark for what levels of PFCs are permitted to exist in drinking water.
Toughening the official standard for what’s considered “safe” also means the state could get more money from the federal government to bring levels down to a new, lower standard.
“Our work for these communities is nowhere near done,” said Casey. “We need all the agencies who were present today to do their part through expertise, funding, and on the ground work to make sure that the safety of the drinking water in these areas is restored.”