Four more PFAS-contaminated water wells found near Dover Air Force Base

Four wells near Dover Air Force Base had levels of PFAS above federal standards. The Air Force is providing bottled water to those affected.

Firefighting foam used here at Dover Air Force Base may be to blame for PFAS contamination in wells nearby. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Mauricio Campino)

Firefighting foam used here at Dover Air Force Base may be to blame for PFAS contamination in wells nearby. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Mauricio Campino)

Dover Air Force Base has been testing nearby water wells for contamination of a class of toxic chemicals called PFAS since 2014. Those tests found one contaminated well in 2016. After further tests, Air Force officials thought there were no more contaminated wells.

They were wrong.

New tests done last month showed four new wells east of the base had PFAS levels higher than the EPA’s standard of 70 parts per trillion.

“After coordination and talking with some of our other state and regulatory agencies, we decided that there was a need to do more sampling,” said base remedial project manager Joe Kowalski. “This is in a different area off Dover Air Force Base. These four impacted wells are all in the proximity of each other.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The four contaminated wells provide water to five businesses in a shopping center, plus two homes and an office building. The Air Force is providing bottled water for those impacted by the contamination.

The contamination near DAFB and other similar facilities in Pennsylvania is believed to be connected to the use of firefighting foam. The PFAS chemicals can enter the bloodstream through drinking contaminated water. Once in the body, they have been linked to a range of health problems, such as certain cancers, thyroid dysfunction, and elevated cholesterol. They can also suppress a person’s immune system.

Dover has since switched its firefighting foam that’s supposed to be more environmentally friendly. Kowalski said the wells identified last month were likely contaminated prior to the changeover.

“Any time a contaminant gets in the groundwater, it only moves as fast as the groundwater, and that can take years to travel off base,” he said.

The state Division of Public Health says the businesses and residents who are affected should use the bottled water provided by the Air Force until a more permanent solution is put in place. The Air Force is also considering longer term remedies including digging new, deeper wells for the people and businesses affected. The Air Force is also considering connecting these customers to the city’s water supply or installing a whole home filtration system.

“These are all options that we are actively looking into right now on what the best way forward is,” Kowalksi said. “Our main focus right now is to make sure that these people are taken care of.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In 2014, deeper wells that provide drinking water to the base via Tidewater Utilities were tested, but no PFAS were detected. State environmental officials say those wells draw from a “deep, confined aquifer.” People living in on-base housing are unaffected because their water comes from the city of Dover’s water utility.

Last year, an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found DAFB had the fourth highest levels of PFAS for all US military sites. The group said Dover’s maximum PFAS levels were at 2.8 million parts per trillion. That’s 40,000 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS contamination.

There is some concern that these four wells may not be the only ones contaminated.

“We’re looking at if it makes sense to test other wells in the area. That’s ongoing in our discussions right now to see if that makes sense to do,” Kowalski said.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said the Department of Defense has not confronted this issue quickly enough.

“But as Dover residents know all too well, this is far from a new threat — and the Air Force’s actions this weekend represent only a tiny fraction of their long-term responsibilities,” Carper said in a statement. “DOD continues to advocate for weaker groundwater cleanup standards and downplay the extent of their cleanup liabilities. To make matters worse, we have an EPA that continues to drag its heels when it comes to PFAS.”

As the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Carper has been pushing for legislation that would designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under U.S. environmental protection laws.

“By designating PFAS as hazardous substances under EPA’s Superfund law, this bill will jumpstart federal cleanup efforts and hold the DOD accountable,” Carper said.

Dover is not the only Delaware site impacted by PFAS contamination. Earlier this year, the CDC announced plans to randomly sample residents who live near the New Castle Air National Guard Base to test them for PFAS. The New Castle study is one of seven similar examinations around the country.

It’s similar to work done last fall in Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania and Westhampton, New York. That study found that levels of one type of PFAS chemical, known as PFHxS, were more than five times higher than the national average, according to results obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The CDC study in New Castle will begin this year and continue into 2020.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal