The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR, was established by Congress in 1980 under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law. This law set up a fund to identify and clean up our country’s hazardous waste sites. The Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. EPA, and the individual states regulate the investigation and cleanup of the sites.
One such site is Puget Sound Naval Complex in Bremerton, Washington. The BNC is situated on the north side of the Sinclair Inlet along the southern portion of the Kitsap Peninsula. The Bremerton Water Department supplies water to about 50,000 customers in the surrounding area as well as BNC. The city uses a combination of wells and surface water to provide water to its customers.
“The complex comprises Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF) and Naval Base Kitsap (NBK) Bremerton, previously referred to as Naval Station Bremerton (NSB). In May 2003, PSNS merged with the Naval Intermediate Maintenance Facility Northwest and is now called PSNS & IMF. PSNS & IMF is located in the northwest corner of Washington State, on the western shore of Puget Sound. PSNS and NBK Bremerton were contiguous properties jointly listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) National Priorities List (NPL) in 1994 as a result of contamination identified during early environmental investigations. Although this site was originally listed as “PSNS” it is currently included under the EPA Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) designated site name of Bremerton Naval Complex. The entire area covered by BNC, which includes both PSNS and NBK Bremerton, occupies 409 acres of upland and approximately 1,000 acres of off-site railroad acreage and submerged land. BNC borders the largest community in Kitsap County, the city of Bremerton, and is situated on the northern side of Sinclair Inlet, adjacent to the downtown Bremerton area.” (CDC 2005 Public Health Assessment)
Extent of the Problem
Contamination and exposures began early at Bremerton, then subsided for a while, until new recent studies suggest additional contamination issues.
“In the past, industrial wastes were disposed of at BNC using practices that were acceptable at the time before establishment of stricter environmental regulations. During the earlier years of operation, BNC released industrial wastes directly into Sinclair Inlet by way of a combined sanitary and storm sewer. Although direct discharge of pollutants into Sinclair Inlet no longer occurs, it is likely that historical releases from shipyard activities were a significant source of contamination for portions of the inlet. Previous Navy investigations identified several areas of contamination, initially designated as site areas and later reorganized into operable units. BNC currently has six operable units (OUs).” (CDC 2005 Public Health Assessment)
According to the CDC report, two pathways for exposure exist:
- Past, current, and future exposure from eating contaminated fish or shellfish from Sinclair Inlet.
- Future exposure from contact with surface soils within OU-D
Operable Unit D consists of 5.3 acres of land located on the eastern side of the BNC. The city of Bremerton was given the opportunity to develop about half of that property adjacent to Bremerton’s ferry terminal. As a result of the a Superfund Listing Site Inspection in 1991, the EPA determined “that the disposal of wastes and placement of contaminated fill during shipyard expansion combined with the potential impacts of the marine environment from contaminant migration warranted BNC being designated an NPL site and was added to the NPL on May 31, 1994 (URS 1996).” Numerous remedial actions have occurred at BNC for terrestrial and marine sources of contamination since it was designated an NPL site. This includes significant soil removal and stabilization efforts to prevent additional migration into Sinclair Inlet.
Notable Chemicals Present
In 1994, the Shipyard dumped chemicals, according to a 1994 Pentagon report.
“According to the Pentagon’s report, PSNS released 94,900 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil during 1994, the first year military facilities were required to report toxic releases and the only year so far for which figures are available. About 2,460 pounds of heavy metals were released into the water.” (Kitsap Sun)
Here’s the breakdown according to the Kitsap Sun:
“N-butyl alcohol, a toxic compound that is harmful to humans and animals, was released in the greatest amounts, according to the Department of Ecology. Some 35,300 pounds of the chemical went into the air from the yard during 1994. From there, some of the chemical may have drifted to the water, according to studies of n-butyl alcohol’s behavior in the environment. Four other hazardous chemicals also were discharged into the environment from PSNS. Roughly 11,000 pounds of Freon 113 and 3,100 pounds of dichloromethane were released into the air. Both chemicals damage the earth’s protective ozone layer. About 2,100 pounds of copper compounds also were released into the air and water, along with about 1,600 pounds of zinc compounds. Both of these chemical classes may be harmful to small marine organisms. The figures don’t exactly match the total because they are approximations.”
Yet, according to the 2005 CDC report, even more releases happened much earlier.
“At BNC, site-related contaminants have been released into Sinclair Inlet. The most significant releases were before 1979, when the industrial wastewater treatment plant became operational. Current releases via storm-water and drainage outfalls at BNC have been greatly reduced and are no longer contributing large amounts of pollutants into the inlet. Some of the pollutants that enter the marine environment break down very slowly (e.g., PCBs, mercury, and lead) and are deposited in the marine sediments. These persistent contaminants may accumulate over time in the biota (e.g., plants, fish, and shellfish). Shellfish and many varieties of bottom feeding fish ingest contaminants from sediments and smaller organisms that are found on the bottom surface and can be concentrated in their tissues. People who harvest and consume these fish and/or shellfish can be exposed to these contaminants.”
Perhaps the most interesting spin on the issue came from PSNS and local reporters at the time, who claimed that these types of pollutant levels paled in comparison to private industry pollution.
PSNS spokesman John Gordon said in a prepared statement.
“The majority of toxic releases reported for calendar year 1994 come from various painting, parts cleaning and maintenance operations performed during the overhaul of naval vessels such as aircraft carriers,” the statement said. “Additional releases come from various operations performed during submarine recycling operations, such as paint removal and metal cutting.” Although the toxic releases from PSNS amounted into the tons, they weren’t even in the same league as private industrial polluters, records show.
This is rather absurd logic. In other words, as long as we don’t dump anything in numbers greater than private industry pollution levels, it’s OK. No, it is NOT OK!
Recent Contamination Issues
In 2019, a group in Washington State filed a lawsuit against the military for dumping contaminated material removed from the USS Independence, a ship in dry dock there for 19 years, along with the USS Kitty Hawk, also docked since 2009.
“The lawsuit involves the “anti-fouling” paint used on hulls of aircraft carriers to remove barnacles. Copper, the key ingredient, threatens the fish and sea life of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. The Navy has scraped, or is expected to scrape, copper-laced paint off carriers at the Naval shipyard, in Bremerton.” (Crosscut)
The worry stems from the amount of material dumped – to the tune of almost 70 dump truckloads!
“From Jan. 6 to 27, 2017, the Navy scraped up to 700 cubic yards (the equivalent of 70 dump truckloads) of debris from the hull of the Independence into the water. An unknown fraction of that material consisted of copper-laced paint chips — enough to raise the concentration of copper above permissible levels. The debris and chips still sit on the bottom of the inlet, and critics fear that the Navy will do the same with the Kitty Hawk at the same spot.” (Crosscut)
In addition to copper, another problem has been the release of sewage at the base. In 2019, “thousands of gallons of raw sewage were dumped into the water.” Estimates place the amount at about 4000 gallons into an area already permanently closed to shellfish harvest due to pollution.
A news story from 2017 shows that a wastewater treatment facility on base also had major issues.
“Civilian workers at the Navy shipyard in Bremerton were exposed to harmful poisons like cyanide and chlorine, but it took seven years for the shipyard’s managers to take action.”
The facility was the subject of warnings and complaints about equipment and design failures before it opened in 2006. Again, the military hid initial findings from the public for an extended period of time, much like contamination problems at other bases when discovered. The industrial processes used at the shipyard generate thousands of gallons of hazardous liquids a day. The toxins include the known carcinogen hexavalent chromium, as well as lead, mercury, PCBs, sulfur dioxide, chlorine and cyanide.
Noted one expert, “exposure to a lot of these chemicals can result in death.”
Among the problems identified at the time:
- Cyanide alarms didn’t work properly.
- Ventilation systems to draw toxins out of breathing spaces didn’t work.
- Lack of training.
- Hazardous material holding tanks overflowed.
- Pipes carrying toxins leaked.
- Chemical odors observed.
- Automated pump systems were problematic.
Documented health problems from the exposure include peptic ulcer disease, skin lesions, memory loss, and other lung diseases. Yet, denial by base officials continues –
“The facility is and always has been safe,” said J.C. Mathews, deputy public affairs officer at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility. “Building 1109 was constructed in 2006 using state-of-the-art systems which met industry standards…..PSNS & IMF has no evidence of adverse health effects resulting from work in Building 1109, and no injuries have been identified.”
In early 2020, the Navy announced that it would test drinking water of residents in homes bordering the base to determine whether or not dangerous contamination from firefighting foams have occurred. According to the Kitsap Sun, “if any homes in areas bordering the base are found to have what are commonly called PFAS in dangerous concentrations, they will receive bottled water indefinitely.” The Navy intends to pay for the testing on homes on wells.
PFAS has been prevalent in a variety of items for years (cookware, carpets, jackets, food wrappers and more). Yet, in this case, the culprit is much clearer to identify – base firefighting foams.
“In a letter to acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell requested more information about the Navy’s plan and asked the Navy to act with increased urgency. They requested the Navy to provide bottled water to homes now before testing is complete.”
The PFAS situation is an ongoing concern and we will update you with further developments as they come in.
- 2005 CDC Public Health Assessment
- AP: Navy to test for contaminated water near base
- Bremerton shipyard workers exposed to dangerous toxins for years
- 4,000 gallons of sewage spills from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard
- ‘An egregious violation’: WA sues Navy for dumping toxic paint into Puget Sound
- Kitsap Sun: PSNS No. 9 in Navy polluters
- Fourth Five-Year Review – Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) Complex Superfund Site Report 2017
- Seattle Times: Navy to test drinking water near base for contamination
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