BRUNSWICK — The U.S. Navy, which is testing private wells around the former Brunswick Naval Air Station for possible chemical contamination, says the first wells tested are within federal health guidelines.
Officials are trying to determine whether perfluorinated compounds, a type of chemical found in elevated levels on the former base, have migrated through groundwater.
PFCs have come under public scrutiny recently for possible adverse health effects. Although used frequently in the past in commercial products like nonstick pans and fire-resistant carpets, PFCs have recently been listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a contaminant of emerging concern.
Many companies that once produced or used the chemicals in products have begun to phase them out.
Studies have found that ingesting some types of PFCs over certain levels can cause adverse health effects, such developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy, cancer, liver problems, immunity issues, and thyroid problems, according to the EPA. The agency in May made its health advisory for PFCs in drinking water more stringent, reducing the concentration of the compounds in water believed to be safe.
The U.S. Air Force found elevated levels of PFCs in a well used for drinking water at the Pease Air Force base in New Hampshire in 2014, raising alarm bells locally and regionally. In Brunswick, citizens working with the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Program have urged the Navy, and the town, to establish base-wide groundwater extraction controls, because the same chemicals are found on the closed Brunswick Naval Air Station.
PFCs exist in levels above the EPA’s health advisory for drinking water around the airport apron, at a building on the northern end of the base, and in a contaminated groundwater plume west of Merriconeag Stream that is being actively treated, according to a Navy report.
Officials believe the PFCs come from a spray foam used for firefighting when the air station operated as a military base. The same type of foam was used at Pease.
Members of the Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment, a group advising the base cleanup, have pushed the Navy and the town to establish base-wide groundwater extraction bans. So far, there are individual deed restrictions on drilling wells, but no blanket regulations.
Suzanne Johnson, a member of BACSE and co-chairwoman of the base’s restoration advisory board, said Tuesday that the citizens group continues to push for broader restrictions. Because PFCs move through groundwater, they can be hard to monitor over time.
“If you don’t test, you don’t know (where they are),” she said.
To better understand the presence of PFCs and their migration at the closed base, the Navy has been testing groundwater in areas north and east of the site over the past few months. The results are due to be released later this month, and will determine if the chemicals have found their way into drinking water sources.
Private well owners voluntarily agreed to testing; the monitoring is not legally required, according to an April fact sheet released by the Navy.
If PFCs are found in the groundwater above the EPA’s health advisory, the Navy will supply residents with alternate forms of drinking water, including bottled water.
But initial reports indicate there may not be much of a problem.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which assisted the Navy in testing about one quarter of the 27 well samples, did not find significant levels of PFCs in its tests.
“Our samples came back either non-detect or an order of magnitude below the EPA’s health advisory,” said Kerri Malinowski of the DEP’s Safer Chemicals program in an interview Tuesday.
She said the area’s hydrology seems to be keeping the PFCs from migrating out of the impacted areas. “That’s really good news,” she said. “We anticipate the remaining samples will have the same or similar results.”
On Wednesday, Navy spokesman Bill Franklin said his agency had received verified data from 23 samples, which all came back as either non-detected or well below the EPA health advisory.
The Navy will also test 25 wells off of Bath Road in August and September, he added, before making a full public report.
Suzanne Johnson welcomed the news.
“We commend the Navy (for turning) the emphasis over to groundwater wells,” she said Tuesday.
She said everyone involved with cleaning up the base must remain vigilant, even though a lot of good work has been done. BNAS used to have 21 active Superfund clean-up sites; that number has been reduced to a handful through remediation efforts, she said.
But the situation with PFCs, which only recently have received widespread attention for their possible side effects, highlights the challenge of environmental restoration.
“This will be the story that continues into the next decade,” she said. “The fortunate thing … is we were on top of this before there was an ill health effect.”
“They didn’t have that luxury in New Hampshire,” she added.
The former Brunswick Naval Air Station.