Brunswick Landing water contamination remedies in dispute

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BRUNSWICK — Members of the citizens group supporting base-wide groundwater controls to combat chemical contamination at the former naval base are disappointed with the response to their proposed remedy.

Officials tasked with cleaning up the Brunswick Naval Air Station, though, say they are actively monitoring the presence of perflourinated chemicals, or PFCs, and are even testing groundwater they are not mandated to by law.

Speaking after the Sept. 17 meeting of the BNAS restoration advisory board, Carol Warren, a member of Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment, said “I sensed a lot of resistance from the town and the Navy.”

“We’re getting some pushback,” she added. “I’m not confident we will get all the changes we are requesting.”

Those changes include instituting a base-wide ban on groundwater extraction at BNAS, now called Brunswick Landing, and require all new development be hooked up to public water.

“It seems obvious to us,” Warren said. “But it’s not what they were planning on.”

PFCs are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “contaminant of emerging concern.” In lab studies, they have been shown to cause development problems in animals.

In 2006, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board reviewed a preliminary risk assessment for perfluorooctanoic acid, a type of PFC, and suggested that it is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

PFCs have historically been used in consumer products ranging from Teflon to fast-food wrappers.

At the Brunswick base, the Navy’s technical team at multiple locations found levels of PFCs, including PFOA, in the groundwater exceeding the EPA’s provisional health advisory. The PFCs are probably associated with the past use of a fire-fighting foam, officials say.

Currently, there are individual deed restrictions in place prohibiting new property owners from drilling wells for drinking water.

“(But) we don’t know where contaminated bodies of groundwater will be 20, 30 years from now,” said David Page, a former Bowdoin Chemistry Professor, said in an interview last week. “We want to make sure that future tenants and future owners of property there don’t do things that could affect their health, like drilling a well.”

At the Sept. 17 meeting, Paul Burgio, of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure program, told BACSE that they would “need some time to absorb (their) comments.”

The process of considering and possibly implementing them will be “very fluid,” he said.

“We hear the concern, we understand the concern,” he added.

Mike Daly, the EPA’s project manager for the site, stressed that the public should take caution in comparing the PFC contamination in Brunswick to the widely-publicized contamination of a drinking water well at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Residents there, including children, were found to have levels of PFCs in their blood 10 times higher than in people unexposed to the drinking water, according to a New Hampshire state epidemiologist.

“That there could be similar exposures in Brunswick couldn’t be further from the truth,” Daly said.

Burgio agreed. “This is a way more serious issue in Philadelphia,” he added, referring to the Naval Air Development Center there, where PFCs were discovered above advisory levels in the drinking water.

“The Navy takes (this issue) very seriously,” he said. “We spent millions this year addressing this issue.”

Burgio pointed out that in testing, the Navy did not detect any PFCs in the water at the Brunswick-Topsham Water District’s Jordan Avenue Pumping Station, which is near the former base.

He also said that most everything on the base uses the public water supply for drinking water. 

But there is one well currently being used at Brunswick Landing, at the Mere Creek golf course.

In a letter to The Forecaster, Ben Sturtevant, a spokesman for the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the agency charged with re-developing the base for civilian use, wrote “with the exception of the golf course, all water used at Brunswick Landing comes from the Brunswick Topsham Water District.”

“While the Maine (Department of Environmental Protection) believes there is no requirement to do so, the Navy plans on testing the well water used at the golf course,” it continued.

DEP Geologist Chris Evans said Sept. 17 that the well would be tested for PFCs “before the end of the year.”

MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque on Monday confirmed the golf course well is used for drinking water.

Moving forward

Speaking by phone Monday, Warren, of BACSE, said that with about 80 percent of the former base transferred to the town already, the planning department should be thinking about groundwater restrictions in the current zoning ordinance rewrite.

She said her group had already submitted this proposal twice: once, in 2010 to the Town Council, and a second time in 2013 to the zoning ordinance rewrite committee.

On Tuesday, Planning Board and ZORC Chairman Charlie Frizzle said they were already moving forward with ensuring groundwater restrictions are carried into the future through deed restrictions.

That methodology, he added, was adopted in June after discussions with BACSE.

Individual deed restrictions work, he said,  because “for each property, restrictions are different … they’re not consistent across the base.” Some deeds restrict everything from groundwater extraction to soil disturbance, he said, while others do not.

“The Navy agreed that was the way to do it, EPA agreed … and BACSE all agreed that was a good way to go,” he said.

“Whatever has come up since then is a surprise to me,” he added.

Members of BACSE on Sept. 17 said they would continue to push for a base-wide groundwater extraction restriction. “Ensuring no public exposure of PFCs is one of (our) goals,” said Carol White, a member of BACSE.

Paul Burgio said that they would hold another meeting with stakeholders in October to discuss BACSE’s comments.

Near the end of the meeting last week, Burgio reflected, “until a year ago nobody had ever heard of PFCs.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick residents concerned about PFCs found in groundwater at the former BNAS said they remain at odds with officials on what steps should be taken to protect the area.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.