News Feature | March 17, 2017

Whidbey Island Wells Contaminated With Firefighting Chemicals

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson

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Foam contaminants at levels above the U.S. EPA guidelines have been found in the wells of residents living on Whidbey Island, WA. The Navy so far has tested over 170 island wells, citing some of them as off limits. In response, the Navy has been handing out bottled water as they expand their testing.

Though their intentions are good, The Seattle Times reported that the Navy’s attempt to discover the cause of the well pollution has added some friction with those inhabiting Whidbey.

“We wanted to immediately assess whether there was an impact on our neighbors,” Dina Ginn, a Navy official involved in the testing program, told the Times. “We take our stewardship role of the environment very seriously.”

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, had been in firefighting foam used by airstrip crews training for possible crashes at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, and “the most serious contamination was found at an Oak Harbor residence near Ault Field, the base’s main airstrip.”

According to Navy-contracted test results, “the well that supplies that home with drinking water is contaminated with one PFAS chemical at more than 35 times the EPA guideline.”

Near the Coupeville airstrip, according to test results released in February, “the wells that tested above the EPA guideline ranged from nearly twice the recommended threshold to more than nine times greater.”

The Navy also found a PFAS chemical in one of the four Coupeville wells that “collectively deliver water to more than 1,000 residences and businesses.”

This is not the first time that a Navy air base has been connected with the use of foam contaminating nearby drinking water. The city of Fountain, CO, is one of many communities in the country that are dealing with elevated levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in their drinking water.

In August, The New York Times reported that other communities such as Hoosick Falls, NY, and North Bennington, VT, were experiencing PFC poisoning.

"Unlike in many of the other places, the contamination in Fountain and in two nearby communities, Widefield and Security, is not believed to be related to manufacturing," the Times reported. "Rather, the authorities suspect that it was caused by Aqueous Film Forming Foam, a firefighting substance used on military bases nationwide."

In November, Air Force officials had announced that a base near Colorado Springs sent water laced with the toxic residue into the city’s sewer system as frequently as three times a year.

In an email sent to The Gazette, officials wrote that Peterson Air Force Base stopped sending firefighting foam wastewater into sewers in 2015. The foam was believed to have contaminated the Widefield Aquifer, making well water for customers in neighboring Security, Widefield, and Fountain unsafe to drink.

Image credit: "Sailors train during a fire drill in the well deck aboard USS Whidbey Island., April 2016" Official U.S. Navy Page © 2016 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/