The study will determine the extent to which DOD is responsible for PFAS pollution.
By SARAH ROBERTSON
WESTFIELD – A decade after groundwater contaminated with PFAS was first detected in the public water supply near the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport, the Air National Guard has announced it will begin a “remedial investigation” of the problem. Soil and water samples taken in the vicinity of the airport will help to determine the extent of the contamination, and the scope of the US Department of Defense (DoD)’s responsibility to remediate it.
“There’s a possibility there are other sources,” Bill Myer, an environmental restoration program manager for the Air National Guard, told The Shoestring. “Everyone thinks it’s all the Air National Guard for PFAS, but there’s other sources of PFAS that are out there.”
At a January 12 virtual meeting of local, state and federal officials working on the PFAS problem in Westfield, Myer announced that the Westfield base had been approved for a yet-to-be-disclosed amount of federal money to conduct the remedial investigation.
For decades before the health risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were understood, the Air Force used firefighting foam containing the highly toxic chemicals to practice extinguishing engine fires. Those chemicals leached into the groundwater supply in Westfield, as well as around hundreds of other US military bases around the world.
The city of Westfield first became aware of PFAS in its public water supply in 2013. By 2016 the Air National Guard had completed an initial “preliminary assessment” of the contamination, which involved testing nearby wells, interviewing locals, and limited sampling of groundwater and soil.
It is still unknown how many private well owners may have been affected. Westfield city leaders approved a $13 million bond in 2018 to build filtration systems to address the contamination, and to date the DoD has reimbursed the city about $1.3 million of that amount.
In 2019, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted exposure assessments in communities either known to have PFAS in their drinking water, located near military bases, or both.
A Strong Correlation
Westfield residents are represented in the assessment and remediation process through an eight-member Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), which first convened last July. Last Thursday marked the RAB’s second meeting. State senator John Velis, state representative Kelly Pease, and Westfield city councilor Kristen Mello sit on the board.
“Nobody is happy about how long this is taking, but this is the public involvement process available to us, and we will continue to do the best we can for Westfield residents,” said Mello, who told The Shoestring that her involvement on the PFAS issue “accidentally got me hired as a city councilor.”
For years, Mello said, she has suffered from recurring pneumonia and a weak immune system. When she learned about the PFAS contamination in her neighborhood, she stopped drinking tap water. She recently installed a reverse-osmosis filter.
“When I stopped drinking the water, I stopped getting pneumonia,” Mello said. “I’m literally going to die from this stuff. In the meantime, I have nothing better to do than make sure there is accountability.”
In 2017, Mello founded Westfield Residents Advocating for Themselves (WRAFT), a grassroots group campaigning for resources to address the water contamination, including public funding to help residents test and treat their water and other data-gathering activities.
“As a city councilor, I’ve been completely ineffectual in getting help,” Mello said. “As WRAFT director we’ve gotten amendments done for medical resources, we’ve gotten testing, we’ve gotten money from the National Defense Authorization Act. And we got the RAB put together.”
In addition to their drinking water, WRAFT has recruited residents to get their blood tested for free by the CDC. Mello said that the researchers found a correlation between the levels of PFAS in the residents’ blood and how long they had lived in the city of Westfield.
“We want to clean up what we released, but sometimes it’s not just us,” Myer, based in Arlington, Virginia, told The Shoestring. “I’ve been to bases where there have been multiple PFAS releases.” While the Air National Guard leases a portion of the municipally owned airport at Westfield, he pointed out, the majority of the property is dedicated to commercial aviation.
At last Thursday’s meeting, Myer told the RAB and other stakeholders that a federal contract for a remedial investigation would be finalized by September with the US Army Corps of Engineers. The investigation could take one to three years to complete.
The new federal funding will not pay for the steps after the investigation: drafting an official work plan, followed by a feasibility study, and then the actual work of decontamination. Myer said the work plan, known as a “Unified Federal Policy Quality Assurance Project Plan,” can be as many as 700 pages long.
Myer explained that the new funding is available because recent federal legislation is allotting money toward PFAS remediation nationwide. “There was a little frustration in the community,” he told The Shoestring, “because things were taking longer to get funded. But with the government [PFAS] funding, they decided to prioritize it.”
Myer said he didn’t know how Westfield compared with other contaminated sites nationwide. The most recent samples from the two wells closest to the base contained 192.5 and 173.2 parts per trillion (ppt) of the six most common PFAS chemicals; one sample from 2021 showed 310.4.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s “lifetime health advisory limit” for drinking water is 70 ppt, and the Massachusetts safe drinking water standard is 20 ppt.
The DoD prioritizes remediation projects based on the severity of contamination, Myer said, and budget constraints have kept the military from addressing all of its PFAS-contaminated sites simultaneously. “We can’t budget to do everything all at once,” he said. “I’ve got sites with hundreds of residents with their private drinking water wells impacted, but everyone wants to be at the top [of the list].”
“The good news is, though,” Myer told the meeting, “the Restoration Advisory Board was pushing for it, and they spoke to different folks within DoD, and the funding was programmed this year.”
An Independent Review
The RAB recently received a separate grant that will allow it to independently review the data federal and state agencies collect in the course of the investigation. Mello said the group is considering asking UMass Amherst environmental engineering professor David Reckhow, an expert on PFAS whose lab is currently analyzing samples from a statewide private well testing program, to help.
Some health experts argue that there is virtually no safe level of exposure to PFAS, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed stringent drinking water regulations for two of the most common compounds: 0.02 ppt of PFOS and 0.004 ppt of PFOA.
Rainwater recently measured across the globe contained these manmade chemicals in excess of those levels.
“It’s just so pervasive, and there’s so many different forms of it,” Reckhow said. “The way to approach this is to try to cut off the supply as much as you can. There certainly are an enormous number of products that PFAS are used in that really don’t require the use of PFAS.”
Reckhow commended state senator Jo Comerford’s work to ban the non-essential use of PFAS in consumer goods. In addition to firefighting foam, stain-proof carpets, makeup and floor wax are some examples of products that can contain any of the thousands of different PFAS compounds. The interior coating of common ketchup and mustard containers was also recently found to be a source.
“Jo Comerford has been working pretty hard to get PFAS out of commercial and domestic products, and get it out of the environment,” Reckhow said. “She’s been a really strong proponent of the PFAS work we’ve been doing.”
Comerford also played an instrumental role in lobbying for state money to expand the Water, Energy and Technology Center at UMass Amherst, where Reckhow works on PFAS and other water contamination issues. Student researchers are helping to track potential sources of pollution by profiling concentrations of specific PFAS compounds.
One recent discovery, Reckhow said, is that PFAS compounds with a lower molecular weight – meaning a shorter chain of fluorinated carbons – can more readily enter and contaminate living tissue. Larger molecules tend to pass through the human body, he said, though they may still break down over time.“I think there’s no doubt that there is quite a bit that came from the use of firefighting foam,” Reckhow told The Shoestring when asked about the Westfield investigation. “But oh my gosh, we’re finding PFAS everywhere.”
A version of this article was published in the January 19th, 2023 edition of the Montague Reporter under the headline “Feds to Fund Investigation of Water Pollution From Westfield Air Base.”
Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass.
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