As part of my work to investigate and remediate pollution in the Upper Potomac, I recently conducted a stream assessment for the presence of PFAS— extremely toxic chemicals — in two tributaries of the Opeqoun creek, Evans Run and Cold Spring Run. The sample sites were the same locations that West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection sampled in June of 2016. Recall that PFOA/PFAS, in addition to their toxicity, are slow to degrade and thus can contaminate drinking water for years. The results of the 2016 DEP testing of both groundwater and surface water, seem to suggest that the contamination was localized to the spring that feeds the Town of Martinsburg’s water supply and is the source for the two tributaries, Evens Run and Cold Spring Run. My follow up testing confirmed that the contamination seems to be localized. Private and USGS wells tested did not result in levels even close to the EPA guidance; however, the two tributaries in question, did exceed the EPA guidance both in 2016 and in 2019.
In 2016, the results from a June field sampling study by DEP, showed that Cold Springs Run was two times the EPA guidance of 70 parts per trillion and Evans run was just over the limit. So what does this mean? As far as we know, there are no direct lines from these tributaries into private homes for drinking or for the use of cattle or other livestock. And since there is not a freshwater standard for any of the PFAS chemicals, we have to use the EPA guidance of 70 PPT. The problem now, as it was in 2016, is that high levels of these contaminants, particularly PFOS, can easily build up in fish tissues. The PFOS chemical easily attaches itself to protein molecules in fatty tissue. The high protein content of fish that interact with these two tributaries will have extremely high hazardous levels of PFOS. Residents may not be drinking right out of these two tributaries, but if they are catching fish in this area and eating their catch, then they are being exposed to PFOS. The particular concern is that the results from the recent sampling I conducted showed levels of PFOS in particular at nine times the EPA guidance. If PFOS was radioactive, it would be glowing with these levels; thankfully it is not. However, you can not tell by looking at Cold Spring Run that the levels of PFOS are off the charts and any exposure through recreation, drinking or consumption could lead to serious health effects.
Thus, there is still a problem; these tributaries are spring fed and the spring is running hot with PFOS. Drinking water with high levels of PFAS chemicals is just as hazardous as eating contaminated fish, especially for women since the PFOS chemical would build up in the milk glands, which could be passed onto infants. And of course, any animals, domesticated or not, that drink from these streams, will have problems. If such animals are used for meat such as cows, pigs or even deer, the meat could be tainted and passed onto humans. The recent story about a dairy farm out west whose entire herd had to be exterminated because the cattle drank water from a source tainted with PFOS shows the potential seriousness of this issue.