It's been half a decade since high levels of toxic chemicals were found in the communities of Bucks and Montgomery County. Despite action taken by the federal government, local residents and city leaders say that chemical concerns are still filling the gaps and affecting finances, the region's reputation, and possibly the health of the population.
Steve Vernik's house is empty. It's been unsold for months, a pariah on the real estate market.
There is little doubt in his mind that toxic chemicals in his drinking water are bubbling from a private well on the property, which is at the southern tip of Warwick. After drinking bottled water for more than two years, waiting for someone to take responsibility for the pollution, he gave up and moved to a new home with his family seven months ago, five miles away.
A second mortgage is the price they pay for peace of mind.
"This is one of the biggest financial hits I've ever imagined in my life," Vernik said. "Paying two mortgages and getting a swing loan to get out of here, and all those other things, have somehow brought me to my knees. At the same time, I can not risk the health of my family. "
Vernik embodies the real cost of a chemical contaminant that subsides five years after its discovery on the border between the districts of Bucks and Montgomery. The source, or at least the largest known source, is a trio of current and former military bases in Warminster and Horsham, where fire brigade chemicals, so-called perfluorine and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been used for decades.
Normally, the military reacted considerably to the contamination. The Navy states that it has spent $ 58 million, of which $ 35 million has been used to filter or provide alternative water to all drinking water sources that exceeds an Environmental Protection Agency recommended safety threshold of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). These include 15 public water wells in Warminster, Warrington and Horsham, as well as a supply well at Horsham Air Guard Station and about 250 private residential wells.
The Navy has also spent US $ 23 million on environmental assessments and studies and has taken some preliminary steps to stop the chemicals leaving the former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve base Willow Grove and the Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster. The Air National Guard has also spent millions on contamination at Horsham Base.
PFAS, however, are not normal chemicals. Synthetically designed to quell fuel fires, they are extremely difficult to remove. They stay around for decades, traveling farther and farther than expected, and gathering in the bodies of those who consume them.
Despite this, the Ministry of Defense has largely closed its wallet, both locally and at other PFAS locations across the country, in all cases where there are no clearly defined drinking water exposures above the EPA's safety barrier. After several states issued regulations to force the military to do more, including more environmental cleanup, the military was pushed back by bringing lawsuits or saying it was legally immune to state orders.
Local officials like Chris Crockett, environmental officer of private water utility Aqua PA, say PFAS problems slip through the cracks in Pennsylvania.
"If you do not stop it at the source, that stuff goes anywhere," Crockett said. "It goes into the ground, someone pulls it out in his private well, it finally reaches the sanitation of the next community, which then flows into a stream, which then becomes the next drinking water intake of the next community. So we really want to get it under control so that it does not bounce everywhere. "
Crockett eagerly awaits a study announced two years ago by the Navy and the US Geological Survey to analyze the waterways in the area and determine how far away the PFAS was from the bases. Crockett believes Aqua has already carried out its own PFAS sampling and already believes that the chemicals will travel 22 miles through a network of streams and streams to a supply of drinking water along Neshaminy Creek in Middletown. A wastewater treatment plant processes 11 million gallons per day for 38,000 aquatic drinking water customers.
Prior to treatment, the Neshaminy chemicals reached 67 ppt in July 2017, just below the EPA health threshold.
"We know it keeps a century in the environment," said Crockett. "In the time it takes to travel 22 miles, nothing will happen."
The company was also hit by the high levels of PFAS in the groundwater wells in Hatboro, Horsham's neighbors, and even in Upper Dublin, some five miles from the nearest base, with no obvious surface waterway connections.
"It's hard to say what the impact was," said Crockett. How far would that move in 50 years? We wish that we had received this information from USGS. "
In an email, USGS hydrologist Lisa Senior said the agency will publish preliminary results of the study by the end of 2019.
"This work is expected to continue for some time, with additional data, analysis and insights to come," said Senior. "The USGS activities do not include the measurement of PFAS concentrations in groundwater or streams that are carried out by others."
Vernik's home is closer to pollution than Aqua's, just three miles from Horsham and Warminster. But that's still enough to look from outside to inside. The military has not taken responsibility for PFAS contamination in its Hartsville neighborhood, where six other homes have outperformed EPA health advice.
The military has instead pointed to the nearby Hartsville Fire Station, suggesting that it may have used fire-fighting foams with chemicals. The EPA surveyed the property's floor and, according to the news agency's findings, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), the primary PFAS in fire-fighting foams, found 47 and 29 parts per billion in two areas.
These values are above the typical PFOS soil levels of about 1 ppb, but are well below the levels often used in areas of high fire-extinguishing foam that can reach up to thousands of ppb. According to a Willow Grove-based environmental report last year, PFOS ground floors near a former fire and rescue facility on Route 611 stood at 98,000 ppb, more than 2,000 times higher than Hartsville.
In an e-mail from Rick Rogers, a deputy director of drinking water at the EPO's regional offices, who was called in by this news organization, Rogers called the results of Hartsville "inconclusive" because the agency does not know exactly how PFOS moves ground to the groundwater. Terri White, EPA Deputy Regional Director for Communications, told the news organization that the EPA was planning to test groundwater below the fire station this month to find out more.
"The EPO has not made a decision because there is not enough data, and the EPO is investigating all potential sources," White wrote.
State Senator Maria Collett, D-12, from Lower Gwynedd, is unimpressed by all parties, adding that the EPA is also to blame for not stifling her foot.
"That's where we are, letters that go back and forth with blame and blame, rather than anyone actually taking responsibility," Collett said.
Horsham in the balance
Even at the epicenter of contamination remain problems.
William Walker, Horsham Township Manager, says that the collateral damage caused by the problem is huge. Prior to the PFAS crisis, the township was to receive 860 acres of the former Willow Grove base from the Navy. In 2012, the Township set up the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority to identify plans for unprecedented land sales larger than the township's existing free space.
Plans include housing, a school, a festival site, a hotel and office park, and even a city center that will incur up to $ 4.7 million in new council taxes, an increase of 22% over the current annual income of $ 22 million. Dollar means million.
All this, however, was put on hold with the outbreak of the PFAS issue in 2014. Last year, the Navy dug about 3,000 tonnes of the most contaminated soil from the former base and attempted to eradicate it, but was rejected by a New Jersey landfill. From late winter, the ground was piled up in a heap under a tarpaulin when the Navy was looking for a hazardous waste dump to pick it up, even though the chemicals were not regulated.
Horsham is in no hurry to turn contaminated soil into his problem.
"New development is very important to us," Walker said. "But we will not evolve and accept any land until we know it is clean … we will not sacrifice public health for development."
The problems go deeper and strike as a desirable, prosperous community in the heart of Horsham. In 2011, the Township was named one of America's Top 100 Places by CNN Money Magazine and climbed into the top 50 in 2013.
The following year, when the contamination was discovered, Horsham was named one of the best addresses for buying a home in Pennsylvania and the state's "Top 10 Cities on the Rise" by a prominent personal financial website.
Well, according to Walker, evaluators like CNN have moved on.
"The last time we talked to them, they said," You have a problem in your city, and that's the base, "Walker said." Nothing happens. "
The rating agency Moody's has also noted this. While the city has maintained its Aa1 rating, the second highest is: "Moody says we have a triple" A "if the base was not just there," Walker said.
There are other tax implications for the region. Concerned that their customers had been drinking and building PFAS in their bodies for decades, and the EPA's 70 percent advice skeptical of other scientists demanding lower standards, in 2016 the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority approved a complete removal plan Chemicals from his water supply.
As the Navy wanted to buy only five filters with more than 70 ppt, the authority decided to filter five more and buy spare water from the neighboring water authority North Wales. In 2016, Horsham received a taxpayer-funded $ 10 million government grant to cut costs. Yet, it costs about $ 1.2 million annually to keep the water clean from all PFAS facilities, according to MD Tina O'Rourke.
The plan also has a worrying disadvantage. In the heart of pollution from the former Willow Grove base, groundwater testing has shown that PFAS is over 300,000 ppt or more than 4000 times the EPA drinking water advisory level. Without having to clean up or pump on site, O'Rourke worries that the authority wells, which are near the bases, are increasingly dragging the contaminated swaths outward and under the feet of the community.
"Are we drawing the water?" O Rourke asked recently in an interview. "One of my problems would be how fast they could actually get some sort of workaround."
The problem is aggravated by the fact that the records of military service providers and accounting apparently have about 140 private well owners in the affected communities who have PFAS in their wells between 40 and 70 ppt. This means that the water is slightly below the EPA recommendation, but the military does not care to connect its homes to the nearest public water system.
In Warminster, city hall director Tim Hagey said the cost would add up after the utility introduced its own zero-tolerance plan for the chemicals. Initially, the Navy verbally agreed to pay for the filtering of six public water wells, Hagey said, but later on two, not far from Vernik's home in Hartsville after the wells dropped below 70 ppt.
The agency initially estimated that setting filters for all remaining wells would cost $ 18 million. According to Hagey, the agency is initially conducting a study of resin filters instead of carbon, which would be more economical. How much Warminster ultimately paid, has yet to be determined.
"We hope we can spend significantly less if we're only allowed to use resin," Hagey said.
Military officials say that robust remediation efforts may not begin until contamination is further investigated, but they have made some efforts to stop the flow of PFAS from the bases.
One major point of interest is contaminated water leaving the northern part of the Air Guard Station and the former Willow Grove base. Environmental testing has deposited thousands of parts per billion PFAS in Park Creek. The waterway then connects to Little Neshaminy Creek, which leads directly along Hartsville to the main Neshaminy. Community officials say there are signs that Little Neshaminy is passing PFAS into the groundwater near Hartsville, which could affect houses like Vernik's. Asked about the possibility, naval officials asked questions to the USGS.
In 2017, the Navy covered artesian wells near the northern boundary of Willow Grove and attempted to seal nearby rainwater falls. Both the Navy and the Air National Guard have extended retention basins in the region, and the Air Guard has even signed a contract with the Warminster Authority to install a temporary treatment system to filter the water leaving the base.
Both bases have also used cameras to inspect their sewers to identify and repair areas where contaminated groundwater could enter. At the Willow Grove base, the Navy begins a pilot study of a groundwater treatment system, and at the former Warminster base, it added carbon to an existing groundwater treatment plant to capture PFAS.
Community officials give them some credit, with Walker saying that he believes the local environmental managers of the military are being affected by national policies. He says they even put their neck down to take action such as soil removal
"DOD did not tell them to do that. EPA did not tell them to do that, "Walker said of the efforts of local base managers. "I think where the frustration comes from is Washington and Harrisburg."
However, community officials also say that the work so far is a proverbial decline of the bucket.
For example, the Air Guard admits that its water filter is quickly overwhelmed during storms and that contaminated groundwater flows back into the drain after leaving the base. According to O'Rourke, the Navy's pilot filter will only pump 20 gallons per minute, and Hagey said the Navy's groundwater treatment at the Warminster base adds up to only about 200,000 gallons per day, which corresponds to only one public well of its authority.
Officials say efforts to limit wells and failures mean that PFAS contamination is just being pushed below the surface, and their target is unknown.
"The water has to go somewhere," Crockett said. "If it does not go to the creek, where is it going?"
For its part, the Navy defended its activities, saying that it had worked with state and state regulators and upheld laws. Air National Guard officials did not respond promptly to a request.
"The Navy takes this responsibility seriously and wants to make sure that it completes this action correctly," wrote Willie Lin, Marine Environment Coordinator, in an e-mail. "The Navy believes that it has implemented the clean-up efforts with reasonable care and concern for all parties, using all available technologies without established regulatory clean-up standards."
With all his problems, Vernik has been empathetic with the military about the extent of the PFAS issue he is facing.
"I'm part of a situation that's too big to even find a solution, which is one of the reasons why I can not be so angry with a certain person because it's so bad," Vernik said.
But just like the local community leaders, a small dose of empathy is not a cure for Vernik's water pain.
"The (Navy) has many jets that are well worth a few billion dollars and they are getting more and more," he said. "How about skipping a year, buying four of them, and taking care of this water situation?