The Navy will test wells on
Whidbey Island to see if drinking water is contaminated with potentially
hazardous chemicals used in firefighting foam.
Wells within a mile radius of
sites at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field Base and Outlying Field
Coupeville will be tested in the next month, base Public Affairs Officer Mike
Coupeville Mayor Hughes said she
just heard about the testing Thursday and wasn’t told if the town’s wells are
included. Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman, however, said it’s
likely Coupeville’s primary well, located near OLF Coupeville, will be among
The tests, which will be free to
residents, will look for perfluoroalkyl substances, which are also known as
PFASs. They are considered “emerging contaminants” because they may affect
human health or the environmental but haven’t been commonly monitored in the
In May, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency issued lifetime health advisory levels on two “long-chain”
PFASs, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, at 70 parts per
trillion, individually and combined. Both of these chemicals were in “aqueous
film forming foams,” or AFFFs, a synthetic firefighting foam, according to the
National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Welding explained that the foam
is the most effective way to put out the petroleum-based fires that occur in
The foam was used at the fire
training area at NAS Whidbey and possibly on runways.
Sheila Murray, public affairs
officer for Navy Region Northwest, wouldn’t say what testing has already been
done or what the results were, how many wells will be tested or whether the
wells being tested include those that belong to Coupeville or the City of Oak
Harbor. The Navy will be meeting with cooperating agencies next week to
finalize the details of the investigation, she wrote in an email.
David Einan of the Environmental
Protection Agency, however, explained that a test of a well on base found “very
high” levels of the contaminants. The well isn’t used for drinking water, he
said, but the result spurred the Navy to begin testing surroundings wells right
Einan said 40 to 50 wells will be
tested on North Whidbey alone.
“Just because the Navy is doing
this very large program doesn’t necessarily translate that there’s a very big
risk,” he cautioned, adding that the Navy is being proactive by directly
testing wells instead of indirect studies and models.
In June, the Navy issued a
nationwide policy to identify areas where the materials were potentially
released. Contaminated wells have already been found at Mountain Home Air Fore
Base in Idaho.
The Navy will provide alternate
drinking water, typically bottled water, for residents if the chemicals in the
water are found to exceed the EPA lifetime health advisory levels, the Navy
The long-chain PFASs may be
linked to increased cancer risk, development problems in children and fetuses,
and immune and reproductive concerns, according to the Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry. Studies to this point have not been
PFASs are used in a wide range of
manufacturing and industrial applications because they aid with resistance to
fire, oil and stains, as well as water repellency.
Long-chain PFASs are persistent
in the environment, bioaccumulate in animals, and are toxic to laboratory
animals, the EPA reports.
The Navy has no reason to believe
the chemicals are present at Outlying Field Coupeville, Welding said, but wells
in the area will be tested “out of an abundance of caution.”
The Navy will hold public
meetings to keep the community informed and will contact well owners in the
sample area, according to a Navy press release. Public meetings will be held in
Oak Harbor and Coupeville for citizens to share their concerns and ask
questions of public health experts.
“The Navy is committed to sharing
additional information as it becomes available throughout the testing process,”
the Navy reported.
While county and EPA officials
said the Navy has moved quickly on the issue, North Whidbey resident Shannon
Stone said she is skeptical. She has been worried about possible chemicals in
her drinking water for years and said the concern goes beyond the PFASs.
She said she stopped drinking her
tap water after realizing that her community well is within 2,000 feet of one
of several Superfund sites on Navy property. It’s also close enough to the base
to be one of those tested.
Stone said she learned about the
PFASs issue at a meeting in August — as well as a separate threat of spreading
contamination — and was alarmed to learn that the Navy wasn’t immediately doing
more to notify the community. She’s been studying the Navy’s pollution problems
on Whidbey for years.
“My head explodes with this
information,” she said. “I do not like knowing this.”
More information about the
Navy’s PFAS initiative and drinking water testing program may be found at
JESSIE STENSLAND, Whidbey News-Times Co-Editor