EPA hosts marathon meeting on contaminated water supplies in Bucks, Montco

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn talks with investigative environmental reporter Kyle Bagenstose about the EPA hearing on water issues in Bucks and Montgomery counties.

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Residents listen to a panel of experts speaking about water contamination around two former military bases. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Residents listen to a panel of experts speaking about water contamination around two former military bases. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

What’s in your water?

About 70,000 residents who live near two former naval bases in Bucks and Montgomery counties are well aware their drinking water is contaminated with chemicals known as PFAS from several types of military firefighting foam first used at the bases in the 1970s.

A marathon community engagement session in Horsham — hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency — to hear ongoing concerns is set for Wednesday.

Journalist Kyle Bagenstose covers this story that broke about four years ago. He recently spoke with Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn, and her first question was the health risks associated with the contamination.

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Researchers aren’t really sure, they don’t have a consensus yet on what the health effects are. There was kind of a landmark study in West Virginia about a decade ago that linked one of the chemicals to conditions like ulcerative colitis, elevated cholesterol, thyroid issues and kidney cancers. Exposure to the rest of the chemicals — the full family — there seems to be some level of consensus that the chemicals together can cause reproductive issues, affect the immune system, and cause issues like elevated cholesterol.

And how much of this stuff do you have to drink to be affected?

That’s kind of up in the air. The EPA has [a measurement of] 70 parts per billion, which is very, very small level of the chemicals … you can’t see it or or taste it in drinking water. But they say that exposure below that level — over an entire lifetime — they wouldn’t expect any health effects to occur. So we’re talking about extremely small amounts that have been linked to potential risk of some level of health effect.

There’s an opportunity to study people who’ve been drinking this to see if they might be contaminated with these PFAS.

Yes, there’s some different health studies in motion. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has conducted a few studies — I believe it’s three over the past couple of years — of residents in the area and whether or not there are elevated levels of cancer. Studies have found certain cancers elevated during certain time periods, but [researchers] said it hasn’t really been consistent across timelines or across the town. So there’s been no definitive conclusion.

I think a lot of people are looking to a larger health study done nationally by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s been funded to do a larger study in numerous communities across the country over the next couple of years. That study is expected to be rather comprehensive. [It will] include blood testing for residents to try to see if the amount of the chemicals in the blood is actually linked to elevated health effects.

All right, let’s talk about clean water sources. How are folks tapping into good water sources now? 

After the contaminated wells were discovered in 2014 and again in 2016 — and these are large water wells providing millions of gallons to public water supplies here — the contaminated wells above the EPA safe limit were shut down. The towns actually went ahead and instituted a zero-tolerance plan where they actually wanted to filter the chemicals out of the water, completely regardless of what the level would be. So they’re doing that in different ways. But a lot of it is through purchasing uncontaminated water from other townships.

Who is on board to address this — the EPA, area politicians? What’s being promised? 

The Environmental Protection Agency is certainly the primary regulator here. I think a lot of people would like to see these chemicals regulated. We hear local officials and other experts and even residents who are aware that it’s very difficult to hold polluters to account to clean up the chemicals or pay for the contamination without specific regulations.

But the EPA hasn’t regulated a new chemical under its Safe Drinking Water Act since about 2000. So it’s something they do very rarely. They’ve said they’re going to take the initial steps of looking at potentially regulating these chemicals. And this meeting in Horsham is kind of part of the agency taking a look at the chemicals. But there are certainly no promises or definitive moves to date.

Do you feel like there are holes in this plan? Is there even a plan? 

People aren’t really sure that they trust the EPA’s safety advisory level for these chemicals right now. A lot of researchers have suggested maybe the level is too high. New Jersey is putting forth some state levels that are a fraction of what the EPA safety level is, and I think people see that and say, ‘Hey, why aren’t we getting that?’ I think there’s a lot of concern — and not a lot of trust — with some of the activities the EPA and the military are undertaking.

And what about the 12-hour meeting that’s planned? What can be accomplished? Is it really just going to stir up the pot and make people realize or feel like they’re not getting what they want?

It’s really interesting to see how the community reacts to this meeting. Under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who of course resigned last month, these chemicals were actually one of the issues he seemed to really be pushing and making it a priority. He had a big leadership conference back in May that brought together regulators and scientists across the country to talk about it. And coming out of that they kind of said they’re going to do some different things. One of them being visiting affected communities around the country. New Hampshire was the first stop, and Horsham is going to be their second stop.

I talked to some residents who attended the New Hampshire meeting about what they took away from it, and they felt that it was actually a pretty good thing, a pretty constructive thing. They said they allowed a lot of time for people to express their concerns. The EPA officials involved seem to be engaged and taking notes and letting the community express its concerns and its desire. So I imagine we’re going to see something like that here now. Whether that ultimately translates into policy that people want to see and results, of course, that’s going to remain to be seen.

Kyle Bagenstose is an environmental and investigative reporter. The EPA’s community engagement session in Horsham today is open to the public. Those interested in speaking must register in advance.

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