Contaminated groundwater, a toxic legacy of Georgia’s air bases

Suwannee Riverkeeper John Quarterman and Lowndes County resident Debra Tann at Beatty Branch near Moody Air Force Base, which was contaminated by a special firefighting foam used by the military. Tann’s well is less than a mile from the base, and she and Quarterman expressed concern about the pollution of groundwater by the Air Force. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Suwannee Riverkeeper John Quarterman and Lowndes County resident Debra Tann at Beatty Branch near Moody Air Force Base, which was contaminated by a special firefighting foam used by the military. Tann’s well is less than a mile from the base, and she and Quarterman expressed concern about the pollution of groundwater by the Air Force. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

For decades, the United States Air Force used a toxic firefighting foam that contaminated water near bases and exposed communities to chemicals linked to cancer and a variety of other health problems.

Recent tests at Georgia’s three air bases show extensive environmental contamination of groundwater caused by the foam.

Despite Air Force assurances that Georgia’s drinking water is safe for the thousands of people living around its installations, experts and neighboring residents are questioning those findings, claiming the military’s review was too narrow and failed to test any water off-base.

“Given that there are concentrations of these compounds on site, over time they’re going to move off of the site. That’s just common sense,” said Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University. “No contaminant obeys property lines.”

In more than a dozen other states, the Air Force has acknowledged contaminating drinking water in communities close to its bases.

Over the years, Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County, Robins Air Force Base in Houston County and Moody Air Force Base in Lowndes County used the firefighting foam in training exercises and to put out fires when planes crashed. The foam also sometimes leaked out of its storage tanks.

All told, thousands of gallons of foam soaked into the ground or washed into creeks and wetlands, killing fish and imperiling those who use the affected waterways for fishing, swimming and boating.

The contamination, which is linked to a class of chemicals known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, was laid out in a series of site inspection reports completed by the Air Force last year.

Those reports concluded that despite high levels of groundwater pollution, there was no immediate risk to human health through contamination of drinking water.

That claim was met with skepticism, particularly in rural areas where many people rely on wells for drinking and irrigation.

"Everything in this area depends on groundwater," said John Quarterman, the Suwannee Riverkeeper in Lowndes County, where Moody is located. "I'm not saying that Moody necessarily did make enough contamination to be a problem, but I can't tell from this report, and I don't think it's our responsibility to determine that they didn't."

In a statement, the Air Force said its response is constrained by a lack of regulation for PFAS chemicals. The two that are the focus of most testing are known as PFOS and PFOA.

“Because PFOS/PFOA are unregulated and Georgia or federal entities have not established standards for non-drinking water sources, we cannot expend government resources on those water sources,” the Air Force said.

Its authority to mitigate contamination “does not extend to risks posed to livestock and agriculture, to include indirect threats to humans through ingestion of plants and animals,” it added.

View of the Grand Bay Swamp, a protected wildlife refuge just south of Moody Air Force Base. Groundwater testing at Moody revealed extensive contamination from a special firefighting foam. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters

Surrounded by cotton fields and low-lying wetlands, Moody recorded the highest levels of groundwater contamination out of the three Georgia installations—more than 5,000 times the screening level.

The base, which started as a flight training facility during World War II, sits 14 miles northeast of Valdosta. It’s bisected by Beatty Branch creek, which ultimately flows into the Withlacoochee River. Surface water from the base runs south into Grand Bay Swamp, a protected wildlife refuge and the state’s second largest blackwater wetland after the Okefenokee Swamp, home to fish, alligators and migrating birds.

Tests of Moody's drinking wells showed no reportable contamination. In a news release published last May, the base celebrated the fact that its drinking water had been deemed safe, emphasizing that its wells plunge down more than 400 feet into a protected aquifer.

But local residents say their wells don’t go nearly as deep, and the Lowndes County public water system has not been tested for the chemicals.

“I’m very concerned, because I live practically adjacent to the base,” said Debra Tann. Tann, an educator married to a retired Navy veteran with family ties to the area, has lived on Radar Site Road, less than a mile from Moody, for more than 20 years. Her well only goes down 230 feet, which could make it more vulnerable to contamination.

Tann added that her husband often fishes from local creeks and rivers that could have been polluted with cancer-causing chemicals. Although the Air Force is not focused on environmental impacts, the site inspection report for Moody found that recreational activities on affected waterways, “could provide an exposure pathway to humans through dermal contact, ingestion of impacted water, and ingestion of fish.”

“Moody needs to be forthright, certainly, with information,” Tann said.

In response to questions, a spokesperson for the Air Force wrote that “since results showed no drinking water impacts on base and indicated there was not a pathway or proximity to off-base drinking water supplies, we did not sample outside the installations.”

Quarterman, who lives just a few miles from Moody on the same land where his family has lived for generations, finds the Air Force’s limited testing troubling.

As a riverkeeper, he monitors water pollution and organizes boat trips that encourage locals and visitors alike to reconnect with the natural world.

“I’m concerned with swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters,” Quarterman said. “I don’t quite understand how anyone can release harmful chemicals and not be concerned about the affects on wildlife, especially fish that people eat.”

Site inspections of Dobbins and Robins also found groundwater contamination and pollution of creeks that flow from the bases into the Chattahoochee and Ocmulgee Rivers.

But, as was the case at Moody, the Air Force said it was only authorized to address drinking water, and it did not detect contamination in its own drinking water. Therefore, it did not test any water off-base.

“They measured what they measured,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said of the Air Force’s review. “I do think they’re underestimating the scope of the problem and there really should be nationwide testing because this stuff is everywhere, and we know that the health impacts are pretty severe.”

Standing water collects in a spill pond on Dobbins Air Reserve Base Friday, in Marietta. The spill pond was among those impacted by contamination from a special firefighting foam used by the military. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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A public relations ‘nightmare’

PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally over time in the environment.

Instead, they accumulate in living tissue, making their way up the food chain from water to plants to animals to people.

Scientific studies have linked these chemicals to a number of harmful health effects in humans, including kidney and testicular cancer; high cholesterol; thyroid disease; reproductive problems; and a weakened immune response to vaccines in children.

In addition to firefighting foam, the chemicals have been used since the 1950s in a variety of industrial and household products, including non-stick pans; stain-resistant carpets and fabrics; and cleaning solutions.

The Air Force's own research decades ago suggested the chemicals had negative health impacts on lab animals.

A series of lawsuits starting in the 1990s against the manufacturer of the toxic chemicals and the companies that used them helped bring the issue to light. The lawsuits revealed that the companies for decades tried to suppress the true nature of the chemicals.

Later, nationwide testing of large public water systems confirmed that the drinking water of millions of Americans had been compromised.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a provisional health advisory on the subject. Since then, the Air Force has been testing the water at more than 200 bases, both in the U.S. and across the world, to determine the extent of the contamination. So far, it has completed site inspections of about a third of the bases it identified as potential sources of contamination.

High concentrations of PFAS at military installations and industrial sites can pose a serious threat to the health of surrounding communities. But the chemicals are so pervasive as to be ubiquitous: According to one study, 98 percent of Americans have traces in their blood.

“Babies are born pre-polluted with these chemicals,” said Tom Bruton, an environmental chemist at the Green Science Policy Institute.

Despite established health risks, PFAS, including PFOS/PFOA, are unregulated chemicals. Air Force officials said they rely on other government agencies to set regulatory standards.

The EPA’s health advisory is an unenforceable guideline.

In response to questions, the EPA said it is working to develop a management plan for this class of chemicals, which it hopes to release “as soon as possible.” But it offered no timeline for completion.

Earlier this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists released emails showing that the White House and EPA sought to block publication of a federal study showing the chemicals were harmful at much lower levels than previously thought.

"The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge," an unidentified White House aide wrote in one of the emails, referring to a "potential public relations nightmare."

Bruton said there is valid disagreement among scientists over what the threshold should be for evaluating the risk of PFOA/PFOS, but the research follows a clear trend with studies showing the chemicals, even at relatively lower levels, can pose health risks.

“What I’ve seen is that over time, the levels tend to go down as more studies are done,” Bruton said. “The health advisory levels are dropping as our understanding of the toxicity increases.”

In the absence of federal regulation, some states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, have taken initiative by testing private drinking wells and issuing consumption advisories for some types of fish that have been found to be contaminated.

A spokesperson for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division said he was unaware of any action in the state on the issue.

Replacement foam ‘still toxic’

Between 2013 and 2015, public water systems across the country that serve more than 10,000 people were required to test for PFAS as part of a federal monitoring program. That testing confirmed that millions were drinking water that had been contaminated with PFAS from both industrial and military sources.

Among the water systems tested were several that serve residential areas close to Air Force bases in Georgia. Cobb County, Smyrna, Marietta, Atlanta, Warner Robins and Valdosta were all tested and did not report measurable levels of contamination.

But Elsie Sunderland, a professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard University, said the government’s reporting limit was too high for this class of chemicals, and much higher than what she uses in her lab.

“Just because it was tested and they said ‘below detection,’ doesn’t mean you know that you have no PFAS in your drinking water,” she said. “The test was not sensitive enough to see the PFAS in the water at levels we might be concerned about.”

The Air Force said it has taken several preventative measures aimed at reducing the potential for contamination of drinking water, including switching to a newer formulation of fire-fighting foam that the military said may be less toxic and persistent in the environment. The the foam used on bases has to meet specifications for suppressing petroleum-based fires.

But the EPA’s latest assessment reveals chemicals in the new foam are still quite harmful.

In fact, they could be worse: The replacement chemicals are more soluble in water, meaning they spread faster and are harder to remove, said Bruton.

“There ought to be a high bar for showing they’re safe, and in my mind that bar has not been met,” he said.

DeWitt, of East Carolina University, expressed similar reservations. She pointed out that most fire-fighting foam products are proprietary and could contain hundreds of different types of PFAS chemicals, many of them understudied.

“The phrase ‘less toxic,’ or ‘more favorable toxicological profile,’ doesn’t really give me any more comfort,” she said. “It’s less toxic, but it’s still toxic.”

A firetruck is parked near the runway on Dobbins Air Reserve Base Friday, in Marietta, GA, November 14, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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By the numbers:

Since 2016, the Air Force tested soil and water at three installations in Georgia to determine whether its special firefighting foam had contaminated drinking water. They used the EPA’s drinking water advisory level of 70 parts PFOS+PFOA per trillion parts water to screen samples.

Moody Air Force Base: Testing conducted at eight sites on base revealed contamination in 22 out of 34 groundwater samples, as well as in surface water of Beatty Creek.Moody’s groundwater contained as much as 375,000 parts per trillion—more than 5,000 times the EPA’s advisory level.

Dobbins Air Reserve Base: The Air Force tested 59 groundwater samples at 16 locations at Dobbins in Cobb County.Thirty-nine of those samples were contaminated, with one reading as high as 80,770 parts per trillion—more than 1,000 times the advisory level.Surface water at Big Lake and two spills ponds was also affected. Groundwater on the base flows south toward the Chattahoochee River.

Robins Air Force Base: The Air Force tested 30 locations on the base and found contamination in 62 out of 77 groundwater samples, as well as some surface water samples, according to a site inspection report from this year.One sample was found to contain contaminants at 352,000 parts per trillion—more than 5,000 times the screening level.The report also said that in 2007, between 20,000 and 23,000 gallons of fire-fighting foam were released and flowed directly into the wetland north of the base, causing a documented fish kill in Echeconnee Creek.