Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, located in Oak Harbor, Washington, has a history of contamination issues that goes back decades. According to a study by Naval Ocean Systems in 1998 –
“Contaminants of concern include heavy metals and organic solvents disposed in landfills; PAHs, and waste oils burned during firefighting training; jet fuels an other POL spilled on the flight line and hangar areas; and pesticides.”
One of the latest and more prevalent sources of contamination is PFOS/PFOA/PFAS. The suspected source for much of this is firefighting foams. More specific to Whidbey Island, the foams are used for training exercises at NASWI’s Ault Field in Oak Harbor, and at the Out-Lying Field (OLF) in Coupeville, where pilots practice touch-and-go landings in the middle of one of Whidbey Island’s most densely populated areas. According to a county government hydrogeology report –
“The Navy started the drinking water investigation on Whidbey Island in November 2016. From November 2016 through July 2019, the Navy sampled 280 drinking water wells near Ault Field, OLF Coupeville, and the Area 6 Landfill for PFAS. Of the total 280 wells, samples collected from 15 wells (31 properties/15 wells) are above the EPA LHA level established for PFOS and/or PFOA. The Navy conducted four phases of drinking water sampling near Ault Field, two phases near OLF Coupeville, and two phases near Area 6 Landfill.”
OLF Coupeville, at the center of one of Whidbey Islands most densely populated areas, is in perhaps the worst place for contamination. The airfield is located directly above the main aquifer recharge area for that part of the island.
“When the Navy was finally forced to test wells around the OLF for traces of contamination, what it found was nothing short of outrageous. Within one mile of the OLF’s first known contamination site, PFASs were found in quantities as high as 600 ppt (Ibid.). In March 2017, the Navy tested 27 more wells, and found concentrations of some PFASs as high as 1,190 ppt (Abraham 2019).”
Ault Field is likewise a significant source of pollution in the region. While Navy testing efforts have yet to reveal a full picture of PFAS contamination in the area, at least three wells have been known to be contaminated above EPA standards. Ault Field was also listed as a Superfund site in 1992 featuring 9 areas of concern.
As to the metrics on PFAS specifically, the report found –
“Testing by the U.S. Navy near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in early 2017 revealed PFAS levels above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory (HA) level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) PFOA/PFOS. One well had levels as high as 2,516ppt. The Navy is providing drinking water to the owners of wells with drinking water concentrations that exceed the EPA’s lifetime health advisory.”
The highest levels have been detected in watersheds near military bases, industrial sites and wastewater-treatment plants, where these chemicals were commonly used. While the recommended concentration of these chemicals is at or below 70 parts per trillion (ppt), research suggests that even concentrations below this recommended amount may still have negative health impacts. Very low exposure to some PFAS chemicals has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened childhood immunity and many other health problems.
“In humans, PFAS poses health concerns such as elevated risks for kidney and testicular cancer and possible effects on fetal development and the immune system, according to the EPA.” (EPA)
According to a DoD FOIA response to EWG, the suspected source of the chemical is firefighting foam. Here are their test results:
- Test Results:
PFA Location detected Maximum Level (ppt)
PFOS + PFOA Drinking water
PFOS Drinking water
PFOA Drinking water
PFBS Drinking water
- Source: EWG from DOD FOIA response data 10/2019 Navy
Outside the health impacts, property values have dropped sharply since the discovery of PFAS contamination, and many homeowners have become trapped as a result – being unable to even sell their homes and move away (Jamail 2017). This is doubly damaging to owners of agricultural lands, whose livelihoods depend on access to large quantities of clean water. (Basewatch)
Firefighting foams used to combat aircraft fuel-based blazes at the air station and many other military installations, have been a major source of PFAS pollution. Defense Department investigations have found PFAS chemicals migrated into ground and surface water at 400 current and former military installations, including Whidbey Island.
The EPA has an “advisory guideline” to alert people to levels that could create health risks if they drink contaminated water over their entire lifetime. The guideline for PFOA and PFOs combined is 70 parts per trillion. On Whidbey Island, Navy-contracted testing has found 15 wells with levels above that guideline.
Relevant Links & Resources:
- New Trouble on Whidbey Island as Chemicals from Naval Air Station Contaminate a Creek
- Naval Air Station Whidbey Island PFAS Investigation
- Navy Drinking Water Testing near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island
- Whidbey Island drinking-water wells polluted with firefighting chemicals near Navy airstrips
- Navy’s Drinking Water Sampling Results near NAS Whidbey Island
- Whidbey group calls for Navy site closure after aquifer contamination
- Whidbey locals ask: Is the drinking water safe?
- New data: Number of contaminated wells on Whidbey doubles
- Island County Hydrogeology summary
- Whidbey Island Resident Files Lawsuit Over Water Contamination
- Navy to Pay for Water-Filter System After Chemicals Found in Wells
- The Navy’s PFAS Contamination of Whidbey Island’s Aquifer and Drinking Water.
- Navy Introduces Toxins to Drinking Water Then Expands Operations
- What Happens to a One Industry Town When the One Industry is the Military
- US Navy: Drinking Water Investigation for NAS Whidbey Island
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