Washington State’s Whidbey Island already has problems with inadequate water supplies. Located in Puget Sound, the residents have to face a long, dry summer with no aquifer replenishment and ongoing threats of saltwater intrusion.
But now they have to deal with the US Navy introducing toxic chemicals into Whidbey Island’s public and private wells, particularly in the area around the small town of Coupeville, where the Navy maintains a heavily used air strip to practice touch-and-go landings, among other exercises.
Cate Andrews is a member of Citizens for Ebeys Reserve (COER), a group of locals working to protect their land, homes and health from environmental and sound pollution from the US Navy. Andrews said some of the wells in Coupeville contain toxic chemicals from the Navy’s firefighting foam exercises at levels 400 percent over what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers acceptable.
“Residents are being provided bottled water by the Navy, but warned not to drink, cook or water their vegetable gardens,” Andrews told Truthout. “The Navy says, ‘Don’t worry about showering,’ but research has shown that these chemicals are transmitted through dermal absorption. Homes valued at over $1 million are unsalable, and people are trapped.”
The chemicals, Perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS) and Perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA), are perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), also called PFCs, and come from the AFFF firefighting foam used in training exercises at the Navy’s Outlying Landing Field (OLF) in Coupeville and Ault Field in Oak Harbor, the latter of which is at Naval Air Station Whidbey.
“They were found in the aquifer beneath the OLF airstrip in October of 2016 and are known to have migrated off-site to contaminate public and private drinking water,” Rick Abraham, who has worked on toxic pollution issues as a public interest advocate for 30 years, told Truthout.
Last December, the story made regional television coverage.
Coupeville’s unprotected and contaminated well, which sits next to the OLF, is providing PFAS-laced water to schools, businesses, Whidbey General Hospital and hundreds of families. Since late 2016, some families with contaminated wells near the OLF have even had to abandon them and drink, cook and brush their teeth with water in plastic bottles, according to Abraham, who has investigated PFAS contaminations in a number of states, taking samples, interfacing with regulatory officials and researching internal company documentation of PFAS-related health harms.
Along with ongoing Navy obfuscation around the crisis, the Whidbey Island Health Department — which has described the Navy as a “partner” — has actively worked with the Navy in shaping the health department’s message about the contamination to the community. The health department also kept secret from the public a plan to test the wells in the community — at the Navy’s request — and who also did not allow citizens to provide input for what was tested and at what levels.
And this is not a new phenomenon.
There are numerous examples across the country of the Navy contaminating water around its bases with toxic chemicals. As of last year, there are literally hundreds of towns across the country dealing with this or similar issues.
Meanwhile, Naval Air Station Whidbey has recently dramatically expanded its fleet of “Growler” aircraft, the single loudest aircraft on the planet, and corresponding operations will increase as well.
Citizens as “Collateral Damage”
Many of the residents around NAS Whidbey, OLF Coupeville, other islands in Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula and even Canadians living in nearby Victoria on Vancouver Island have grown accustomed to ear-piercing jet noise from the Navy’s war machines.
Naval plans to conduct electromagnetic warfare training on the Olympic Peninsula, as well as the fact that they had already been doing so on state highways unbeknownst to residents, and news of the Navy being permitted to kill or harass nearly 12 million whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and seals across the North Pacific Ocean over a five-year period are things people in this region have grown accustomed to hearing about their naval neighbors.
Pleas from residents about these issues (and many others they are concerned about) have for the most part been ignored, or sometimes residents have even been chided, by the Navy.
The issue of the toxic chemicals in residential drinking water, however, has people directly impacted very upset, and many are angered by what they see as a cover-up.
“All ‘official’ PFAS [perfluoroalkyl substances] testing done in the community has only been for PFOA [Perfluoroheptanoic acid], PFOS and PFBS [Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid],” Abraham said. “The Town of Coupeville had its water independently tested, but like testing done by the Navy, PFHxS [Perfluorohexanesulfonic acid] and PFHpA [Perfluoroheptanoic acid] have been ignored.”
He went on to add that no references to these chemicals could be found in the “colorful posters and materials at the Navy’s ‘Open House’ public meetings,” nor are they mentioned on the Navy’s informational website, or websites for Island County and Coupeville.
“What the Navy and many public officials dismiss as acceptable amounts of PFASs in drinking water are thought by many research scientists to be a threat to human health,” Abraham added.
PFASs build up and stay in the body for a long time. It takes eight to nine years to get rid of half the amount of PFHxS already in the blood, two to four years for PFOA, and five to six years for PFOS. By drinking contaminated water, you can have more PFASs in your blood than is in the water due to the bio-accumulative effect.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, studies indicate PFASs can, “affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in growth, learning, and behavior. In addition, they may decrease fertility and interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol, affect the immune system, and even increase cancer risk.”
“The Navy has known of private contaminated wells for years, and is only now taking action after a threat of public exposure,” Andrews said.
In January, Andrews told Truthout that the Navy was testing 100 wells in Coupeville within a one-mile radius of the OLF, but each time another contaminated well was discovered, the Navy moved ground zero out another mile.
“I believe that Whidbey Island could be environmentally compromised beyond recovery, just as it has been culturally destroyed by the Navy’s total indifference and abuse of those living here,” she said. “Who is going to pay for all of this cleanup? The water and air are compromised, citizens’ health has been compromised, and yet the Navy — who could easily practice their exercises elsewhere and begin the arduous clean up now — has opted for willful ignorance and arrogance.”
There are numerous other health impacts from the chemicals the Navy has added to the drinking water of Whidbey Island.
Studies, including those related to child exposures, suggest PFASs can reduce immune response to certain vaccinations and increase risk of infection. Additionally, children with higher blood levels of PFHxS were found to have an increased chance of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and perfluorinated compounds, such as PFHxS, affect the function of sex hormone receptors.
While the EPA’s “acceptable” level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion (ppt), this level has been widely criticized as not being protective. As a result, several states have set far more conservative standards.
Minnesota’s Drinking Water guidance level is 35 ppt for PFOA and 27 for PFOS, while Vermont’s drinking water health advisory level for PFOA is 20 ppt.
Vermont doesn’t even recommend using water with any level of PFOA for its livestock.
Upon finally admitting to finding levels of the chemicals in several wells, the Navy offered bottled water to people.
“Their offer of bottled water is patronizing when you consider the numbers of organic farms located on hundreds of acres on this island who sell their fruits and vegetables to some of the most well-known restaurants in Seattle,” Andrews said.
“Early on, we were told by several Navy staff that ‘we’ were collateral damage to the ‘war on terror,” Andrews said of what the Navy told her several years ago, when the so-called war on terror was driving US foreign policy. “And while unbelievable at first glance, I now believe this to be true.”
Lying by Omission
Karen Sullivan is a retired endangered species biologist who worked at the US Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 15 years and is an expert in the bureaucratic procedures the Navy is supposed to be following, including Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). Sullivan cofounded the website West Coast Action Alliance, which acts as a watchdog of naval activities in the Pacific.
“In still another example of the flaws in this EIS, the contamination of drinking water in residential and commercial areas near the naval runways due to use of hazardous chemicals is not addressed,” Sullivan told Truthout.
The Navy’s EIS concludes, “No significant impacts related to hazardous waste and materials would occur due to construction activities or from the addition and operation of additional Growler aircraft.”
But according to Sullivan, these chemicals have never been analyzed and have been used in conjunction with Growler training and operations for many years; therefore, their analysis should not be excluded.
“With flights at OLF Coupeville increasing from 3,200 in 2010 to as many as 35,500, nobody can claim that a 1,000 percent increase in seven years for which no groundwater or soil contaminant analyses have been done is not significant,” she said.
The Navy’s publication of the EIS she is referencing was on November 10, 2016, and she believes the Navy “was well aware of potential problems with contamination of residential drinking water due to what it calls ‘historic’ use of fire suppressants for flight operations.”
In May 2016, the EPA issued drinking water health advisories for two PFCs, and the Navy announced in June 2016 that it was in the process of “identifying and for removal and destruction all legacy perfluorooctane sulfonate (and PFOA) containing AFFF [aqueous film forming foam].”
Yet, on page 3-62, the Navy’s EIS dismisses concerns with a statement about actions that took place nearly 20 years ago: “Remediation construction was completed in September 1997, human exposure and contaminated groundwater exposures are under control, and the OUs at Ault Field and the Seaplane Base are ready for anticipated use (USEPA, 2016e).”
“The statement is ludicrously outdated, and recent events refute it,” Sullivan said. “Three days before the EIS was published, on November 7, 2016, the Navy sent a letter to more than 100 private and public drinking water well owners expressing concern that perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found beneath the OLF had spread beyond Navy property.”
Nevertheless, the word “perfluoroalkyl” or “PFAS” is not mentioned once in the entire 1,600-page Growler EIS, nor the 2005 or 2012 Environmental Assessments.
The Navy’s Public Affairs Officer Mike Welding sought to reassure the public in late 2016 in an interview with a local TV station: “The Navy is going to provide those people with safe drinking water until we can figure out how to remove the contaminant from the water well, filter it out or something like that. It’s something that still needs to be worked out.”
Unfortunately, according to Sullivan, a statement from the Department of Defense’s own “MERIT” program contradicts the Navy’s diagnosis: “Currently, there are no in situ technologies and very limited ex situ options to treat soil or groundwater contaminated with PFCs.”
“The EIS confines its discussion of groundwater contamination to soil compression and compaction effects from new construction, and concludes there will be no impacts to groundwater,” Sullivan said. “No mention of contaminated soil is found in the EIS. Extensive evaluations for a variety of hazardous materials, however, were included in the Northwest Training and Testing EIS, so why leave it out of the Growler EIS? This is the equivalent of a doctor refusing to look at an EKG that clearly shows a heart attack, and diagnosing the patient with anxiety.”
“The Navy’s approach to this pollution problem is no different than that of any big industrial polluter seeking to avoid criticism, reduce liability and continue business-as-usual,” said Abraham. “Downplaying the seriousness of the problem, dragging out investigations and keeping the public in the dark is what they too often do.”
He told Truthout that the Navy has not revealed all the contaminants found in the aquifer, and their draft EIS did not mention the contamination issue, even after the Navy sampled wells and discovered contamination and notified residents living within a mile radius.
COER is suggesting that people near the OLF have their water independently tested for the same chemicals found by the Navy, and that the Navy be asked to pay for the tests.
“The testing of our water should not be a one-time event, and the analysis should identify the lowest detectable concentrations of those chemicals,” COER’s Maryon Attwood said in a press release on the issue. “We have a right to know what’s in the water we drink.”
Bruce Saari, another long-time Whidbey Island resident who has lived many years near the naval base or OLF Coupeville, is deeply disturbed by the ordeal.
“Those early fears have been realized I think,” he told Truthout, referencing the contamination found at the air base. “And now it is Coupeville that is under the same cloud. I lived 20 years on Whidbey on Long Point near the OLF and in Oak Harbor near the base. I have a lifelong interest in the area, worked the farms on Ebey’s reserve as a student, and feel a sense of impending doom regarding these developments.”
What COER, Abraham and countless other Whidbey Island residents being impacted by the crisis want is simply clean and safe drinking water, and for the Navy to take responsibility for the crisis it has caused.
Abraham believes the Navy must immediately install appropriate filtration systems on private and public wells that are contaminated or at risk, which includes all of Coupeville’s wells and water treatment plant. He also thinks it only makes sense for the Navy to provide alternative sources of clean water to all entities who have seen their water contaminated.
“Too many people have been living off bottled water for far too long with no end in sight,” he said.
On March 4, the Navy tested 27 monitoring wells it had previously installed at OLF Coupeville, where it found even higher levels of contamination in the aquifer in some of the wells. PFOA was found up to 1,190 ppt, PFOS up to 54.7, and PFBS up to 473 ppt. The Navy’s “plan” for testing these monitoring wells did not include testing for PFHxS or PFHpA, even though both were known to be in the water as well.
Andrews, COER and Abraham are all calling for the Navy to retest and monitor all public and private wells known to be contaminated or “at risk.”
They are also calling for PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA [Perfluorononanoic acid] to be added to the list of chemicals monitored at OLF’s on-site monitoring wells; for all public and private drinking water in the area to be tested and monitored for all six PFAS found at the OLF; for the migration of contaminated water to be stopped; and for the PFASs to be removed from the aquifer, as technologies already exist for doing so.
But these are tall orders when viewed from the fact that even getting the Navy to admit to the extent and severity of the problem still remains the first step.
Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last 10 years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.