New sites, lawsuits and legislation: Update on water contamination in Philly suburbs

    Pennsylvania Rep. Thomas Murt

    Pennsylvania Rep. Thomas Murt

    Three hundred more private wells in Bucks County will undergo testing for hazardous perfluorinated chemicals known as PFCs. Three lawsuits target manufacturers of products using the chemicals. And one bill has been introduced in Pennsylvania’s Legislature, calling for tougher standards for drinking water tainted with PFCs.

    These are just some of the recent developments in an environmental degradation story echoing around the country, related to hazardous chemicals used at military air bases and manufacturing facilities that have leaked into groundwater for decades before being labeled as contaminants.

    New investigations

    On Nov. 17, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced a new investigation centered on Ridge Run Road in East Rock Hill Township. It’s the second contaminated site in Southeastern Pennsylvania that is not affiliated with known contamination of groundwater by the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove and the Horsham Air Guard Station.

    “The DEP has created a 1-mile radius around that [Ridge Run] area, and we’ve begun identifying homeowners with a private well,” said Virginia Cain, DEP community relations coordinator. “Those homeowners will be contacted in the coming week or two.”

    Once contacted, homeowners can make plans to have their private wells sampled.

    Previously, the DEP announced an investigation of water contamination in the Doylestown area.

    Owners of private wells found to draw water above the health advisory level will receive bottled water.

    The two public wells in East Rockhill that tested at or above the 70 parts-per-trillion federal health advisory level — thus sparking the investigation — have been reconnected to water sources within the recommended level, according to Cain.

    Until the state does more water sampling and geological testing, she said, the DEP can’t say how the chemical is getting in groundwater or what steps will be taken to remediate it.

    PFCs are used in consumer goods from firefighting agents to nonstick cookware, and contamination in the Willow Grove/Horsham/Warrington area stems from extensive use of a firefighting foam meant to tackle fuel blazes.

    A proposed law to lower the action level

    PFC contamination at sites across the country has increased anxiety over long-term exposure to the chemicals. While the Environmental Protection Agency sets a national health advisory level, which triggers action, New Jersey, Vermont and other states have set their own lower levels.

    This fall, state Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Montgomery, introduced legislation that would codify a lower health advisory level in Pennsylvania, to urge state and federal officials to do more for residents affected by two PFCs in their drinking water: PFOA and PFOS.

    “They believe the presence of the two chemicals is at a safe level right now … and they are under no obligation to provide any further remediation. And I disagree with that,” he said. His bill proposes lowering the action level for PFOS and PFOA from 70 parts per trillion to 5, the lowest level currently detectable.

    At the end of the most recent legislative session, the bill landed in the Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy. Murt said he plans to reintroduce it next session.

    The EPA lists PFOA and PFOS as “emerging contaminants,” indicating an evolving or incomplete understanding of the chemicals as they relate to human health. Wells contaminated above the 70-ppt standard in Horsham, Willow Grove and Warrington have been taken offline. Prior to 2014, however, thousands of Bucks and Montgomery residents drank, cooked with and bathed in contaminated water for decades.

    Concerns over what this long-term exposure means for residents have led for calls to reduce the health advisory levels in Pennsylvania. Lowering that level would require state and federal agencies to pay for closing many more contaminated wells and connecting more residents to clean water.

    “The federal government and the United States Navy are responsible for this, they should participate actively and aggressively in the cleanup,” said Murt.

    Cain said the state will not comment on pending legislation.

    Seeking damages

    While federal and state agencies move forward slowly, some residents are going after the companies that made the firefighting foams responsible for the contamination.

    As of November 2016, five suits had been filed in response to a variety of grievances related to the contamination, according to the Intelligencer newspaper.

    Three of the suits target the same six defendants, all manufacturers of foams used at area military bases: 3M, Angus Fire, Ansul, Buckeye Fire Protection, Chemguard, and National Foam. At least two suits seek class-action status for area residents.

    Another suit seeks $1 million in damages from the Navy, claiming that the federal government’s failure to dispose of the contaminant safely resulted in a total loss of home value, according to the Intelligencer.

    Several of the suits seek money to conduct blood testing for residents in the affected areas, a measure Gov. Tom Wolf asked the Navy to undertake in June. The Navy declined, saying blood samples do not provide information on how a person was exposed to PFCs, which exist in low levels in most people.

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