Nearly six million people rely on public water supplies within the Potomac River Watershed to provide them with clean drinking water. Forty years after the passage of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, we rightly expect our water to be safe and healthy for ourselves and our children. Unfortunately, events have come to light over the past several years in Martinsburg, West Virginia that raise questions about how seriously public water utilities and the EPA take their responsibility to notify the public when their water may be unhealthy to drink. It also reminds us of the critical role Riverkeepers play in investigating and publicizing threats to water quality and our communities.
This story begins with EPA issuing a lifetime health advisory (LHA) in 2016 that gave a limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOAs, two chemicals commonly used in firefighting foam and sometimes found in drinking water. While this advisory does not set legally enforceable standards, it is typically used by public water utilities to alert their customers and upgrade their treatment to prevent long term exposure through drinking water.
So what exactly are PFOS/PFOAs? Synthetic fluorinated organic chemicals that were used in many industrial and consumer products, but most notably in a firefighting agent called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) that has been widely used by the Air Force since 1970. AFFF has proven to be particularly good at extinguishing petroleum-based fires, including aircraft fuel. Most aviation military bases routinely conduct firefighting training in a specific location, which allows AFFF residue to build up in soils and leach into groundwater after years of use.
Initial research studies have indicated that PFOA/PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in animals, and may be carcinogenic. PFOA/PFOS chemicals also bioaccumulate, so long term chronic exposure at low doses is just as much of a threat as short term acute exposure.
In response to EPA’s advisory, the U.S. Air Force reported that 203 military bases around the country were being inspected, and surface water and drinking water sources were impacted near 26 of them, including the Big Springs Filtration Plant for the City of Martinsburg, located near the 167th Air National Guard facility. Local streams flow into Opequon Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River and are connected to groundwater flow through the limestone geology that underlies the area.
In May 2015, Martinsburg officials were alerted that drinking water testing showed PFOA/PFOS levels higher than the LHA, prompting them to shut down the filtration plant and switch to a backup water source. Current thinking is that AFFF from the airfield leached through the limestone “karst” geology and into Big Spring Deep Well, resulting in the city of Martinsburg’s water supply being tainted with potential long term exposure of PFOS/PFOAs.
Most alarmingly, city officials did not tell residents that these harmful chemicals were detected in their water supply, or that the City had switched to using an alternate, backup water source. This vital information was kept from the public for over two years, along with annual water quality reports to residents that were withheld in 2016-2017. Local media first reported on it in spring of 2016 and summer 2017.
As it stands now, the City of Martinsburg has almost completed the $1.5M in upgrades to the Big Springs Filtration Plant, in spite of the Air National Guard’s failure to honor its promise to compensate the city after it admitted liability in early 2017.
At this point, you may be shocked at the drinking water issue, but wondering how this might affect the Potomac. Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Wall’s investigation found that West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) only conducted a single, limited investigation of PFOA/PFOS contamination on 9 private wells and nearby tributaries of Opequon Creek. DEP’s analysis was plagued with sampling errors, casting doubt on its conclusion that wells and streams were free of contamination. Brent is continuing to dig, comparing notes with Riverkeepers in New York who have found PFOS/PFOAs in their watershed and mapping out the next phase of our investigation. The people of Martinsburg deserve answers, and have a right to clean drinking water and government officials who have their best interests in mind. Stay tuned for more…