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Army Contaminates Fort Ord

Red X denotes recently disclosed site of PFAS contamination

The Army has revealed that two highly toxic chemicals, PFOS and PFOA were recently found in the groundwater at the old Fort Ord, near Salinas, California at 560 parts per trillion, (ppt), which is 8 times higher than the EPA’s advisory level of 70 ppt. The chemicals are known to contribute to testicular, liver, breast, and kidney cancers, as well as a host of childhood diseases and abnormalities in the developing fetus.

Although the base closed 26 years ago, the presence of the “forever chemicals” provides a wake-up call that PFAS is present at harmful levels in the ground.

Although the base closed 26 years ago, the presence of the “forever chemicals” at these levels provides a wake-up call to the public in the region that PFAS is present at harmful levels in the ground. Customers of California Water Service - Salinas should be especially cognizant of the potential for contamination. Groundwater from the base is reported to move in a northeasterly direction toward Salinas while the town’s water supply is derived largely from groundwater.

No federal or state maximum contaminant levels for PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been established. In February, 2020, however, the California State Water Resources Control Board lowered its "Response Level" to 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS. If a water system exceeds the response levels for these contaminants, the system is required to take the water source out of service or provide public notification within 30 days of the confirmed detection. Previously, the response level was 70 ppt for the total concentration of the two contaminants combined. The groundwater at Fort Ord contained 113 ppt of PFOA and 447 ppt of PFOS.

Because of the new regulations water systems throughout the state have been required to either shut down drinking water wells or treat the water so it is deemed safe to drink.

People in the Seaside-Salinas area who drink from private wells should be careful not to drink water containing PFAS. Neither the federal government not the state regulate well water.

A recent news story in the Monterey County Weekly omits the alarming analytical results while quoting a spokesperson for the Army saying there is little risk to public health from PFAS contamination at the base. It is not surprising that the Army or its contractors would be downplaying the threat to public health posed by the Army’s use of toxic firefighting foams during firefighting drills and in overhead foam suppression systems for over twenty years at Fort Ord.

“Fortunately, compared to other [Department of Defense] sites, the presence of PFAS is not that extensive,” says William Collins, environmental coordinator of the military’s local Base Realignment and Closure office. “The chemicals were not frequently used here and not in large quantities.”

Army firefighters train using foam aqueous film-forming foam, (AFFF) containing PFAS. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Benjamin Donahue, distributed through Wikimedia Commons)

Army firefighters train using foam aqueous film-forming foam, (AFFF) containing PFAS. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Benjamin Donahue, distributed through Wikimedia Commons)

The paper provided a link to a 1,345-page draft report, by Ahtna Environmental, Inc., under a contract with the U.S. Army. A closer look at the report details wide use of the substances and a greater threat to public health than the public is led to believe.

Collins said, “Where we found PFAS, it is being removed.”

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Perhaps Collins is referring to just PFOS and PFOA - two types of PFAS (per- and poly fluoroalkyl substances.) This, in itself, is a pretty tall order considering the amount of the AFFF used over the years and the distances the chemicals have likely traveled in underground plumes. The Ahtna report only provided the results of contamination for two PFAS chemicals while the Army, like the other branches of the military, is likely to have used dozens of the toxins in a variety of applications.

We were provided a glimpse of the contaminants poisoning the groundwater by the military when the Lahontan Regional Water Board tested the well water of a home in Victorville, California two years ago. The water was found to contain high levels of 25 separate PFAS chemicals. The home is located close to the shuttered George AFB which closed 28 years ago.

The public in Salinas and Seaside won’t learn about the exact levels of these chemicals in their groundwater or drinking water unless they are proactive. Certainly, they cannot rely on the Army to be candid. Public health professionals say people should not ingest more than 1 ppt of PFAS daily.

Building 507 is the source of much of the PFAS in the Fort Ord region.

Building 507 is the source of much of the PFAS in the Fort Ord region.

The Monterey County Weekly reported that the Army identified sites where more investigation is needed. The most obvious place to look more thoroughly is Site 10, the Burn Pit - Fire Training Area. Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) was used there for at least two decades. Typically, Army fire pits consisted of a roughly 100-foot diameter unlined crater. Typical fire training activity included dispersing drummed waste oils, solvents, contaminated oils and jet fuels until the ground was saturated and the substances formed a pool. Then firefighters would ignite the fuel and extinguish the fire using deadly AFFF.

It is not good for the environment.

Foam suppression system in Building 507 Hangar

Foam suppression system in Building 507 Hangar

The Army ought to take a closer look at the hangar in Building 507 because it is outfitted with a foam suppression system and the Army tested these overhead systems regularly. In the case of an aircraft fire in a hangar, or a routine test of the system, 17 feet of deadly foam can cover aircraft in two minutes. When tens of millions of dollars invested in a single aircraft is at stake, it is not hard to imagine the financial considerations driving this extreme approach to protecting the property. The foam, containing the “forever chemicals,” easily snuffs out petroleum-based fires but it also contaminates groundwater, surface water, and sewer systems on a deadly scale when it is rinsed out of the hangar.

The Ahtna Environmental report says activation of the suppression system could have resulted in AFFF being discharged to surface drainage channels or entering the sanitary sewer system.

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Pat Elder

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