2018-05-24 / Front Page

Old Chemical Causes New Concerns at Base

By Andy Long

Concerns regarding an old chemical not used for decades, yet possibly still present in the groundwater at the Navy Station Newport base, has both the Navy and regulators worried.

At the March 16 meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), a committee of stakeholders from the Navy, state and local officials, as well as residents, all with an interest in the environmental remediation efforts at Navy Station Newport, heard a presentation about the substance, Polyfluoroalkyl or PFAs, which was once used in many household products, such as non-stick cookware, breathable all-weather clothing and insecticides. It has since been termed an “emerging contaminant” by the Environmental Protection Agency and by the Department of Defense.

Rachel Dunleavy, civilian employee of the Department of the Navy, who works at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) at Norfolk, Virginia, said the DOD defines an emerging contaminant as a “substance that has a possible pathway to enter the environment, a potential unacceptable risk, and does not have a regulatory standard or has a law based regulatory standard.”

In 2009, the EPA issued a preliminary drinking water advisory for PFAs. However, Dunleavy said that the science on PFAs is not yet settled and the extent of the risk the chemical poses to the public is yet to be determined. “We’re working with an evolving science and in an evolving regulatory environment,” she said.

Her colleague at NAVFAC, Jim Gravette, summarized the danger that PFAs might pose. “I think right now, because it is an emerging contaminant, there are so many unknowns,” he said. “We don’t know if there is any potential issue, but our bosses… are saying [to] go out there and see what’s there.”

At the base, PFAs were used primarily as one element in the foam that is used to suppress oil fires. It was also used in electro-plating processes, which is a process that coats one metal with a thin layer of another metal. PFAs were a component of the chemical bath into which metals were dipped before an electric current would create a thin coating.

Dunleavy said there is no danger to the drinking water for Aquidneck Island residents, including those who live or work on the base. During her presentation, she pointed on a map to the two ponds that supply the base with its drinking water and said, “As we’re looking at any PFAs concerns with Newport, there is not a concern that it would get into the drinking water.”

All the sites on the base where PFAs had a presence are downhill of the ponds that supply the base’s drinking water, and thus there is no possibility they could migrate to them, she said. Furthermore, these sites are away from all the ponds that supply Aquidneck Island’s civilian residents with their water and pose no danger, Dunleavy went on to say.

Her assertion that Newport County’s water supplies are safe was endorsed by Michael Asciola, the assistant town planner of Portsmouth, who was at the meeting. In a phone interview with Newport This Week, he said, “Based on their technical expertise [referring to the Navy’s personnel] not just here in Newport but nationwide, I trust their findings.”

Asciola pointed out that all the sites of possible PFA contamination on the base are isolated from Aquidneck Island water supplies, saying, “Newport County doesn’t have any wells or reservoirs in that watershed.”

Dunleavy and Gravette performed a Preliminary Assessment, the first step in what could be a long process. “If we find [a site with possible contaminants] we will determine if there is a need for further investigation,” Dunleavy said.

So far, they have identified areas on the base where PFAs may have been used, stored or handled.

If Navy officials and environmental regulators believe that the PFAs pose a risk, there would then be a Remedial Investigation, in which a private contractor would be hired to collect water samples from the sites for testing.

The project to comprehensively list all possible sites where PFAs might have been used or stored began in 2015. Since that time, Dunleavy and Gravette have reviewed various records of the activities of Navy Station Newport. They have also drawn upon aerial photos, historic site maps, old engineering plans, personal photos and interviews with those who served at the base, and poured through old operations manuals, shipping manifests and hazardous waste reports.

They found that the sites where PFAs might have been used and thus migrated into the adjacent groundwater are scattered all over the old limits of the base, including Gould Island, which is just off-shore of the base.

Basically, PFAs might have migrated into the environment where Navy fire suppression crews trained, where there were fire stations on base, or where it was stored. Also, there were several electroplating facilities at the base, including one on Gould Island. Landfills on Gould Island and at McAllister Point on Aquidneck Island could also be contaminated.

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