And Maryland’s Plan to Test Local Water & Oysters
This article has two parts. The first examines how the Patuxent River Naval Air Station (Pax River) used toxic firefighting foam in fire-fighting exercises near the beach at Hog Point for years that resulted in PFAS poisoning oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. The second part addresses the state’s response to recent citizen concerns regarding contamination by the Navy and plans by the Maryland Department of the Environment to test oysters near Pax River and its Webster Field Annex in St. Inigoes, Maryland.
Part 1: Patuxent River Naval Air Station
Eighteen years ago, the Journal of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology published the results of a study that found oysters in the Chesapeake Bay at Hog Point that contained up to 1.1 million parts per trillion of PFOS. Hog Point is located on the Pax River Navy base at the confluence of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Science is out of vogue these days and this scientific piece was published in 2002, but, please, keep reading.
Frying oysters does not destroy the PFOS. The chemical is almost impossible to destroy by heat and fire. After all, it repels fire better than anything ever developed.
If a single oyster contains a million ppt of PFOS, a fried oyster platter with a dozen oysters might contain 12 million ppt. Frying oysters does not destroy the PFOS. The chemical is almost impossible to destroy by heat and fire. After all, it repels fire better than anything ever developed.
It is frightening that PFAS chemicals take nearly forever to break down. They are a perpetual threat to human health. For instance, Michigan has issued a ‘Do Not Eat’ advisory for deer taken within approximately five miles of Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda Township. Deer meat was found to contain 547,000 ppt. of PFOS. Wurtsmuth closed in 1993 but the contaminants continue to be present in the streams coming from the base.
PFAS are bio-accumulative, so the high levels the deer consume daily from drinking stream water stay in the deer’s internal organs and it is the same with humans. We can’t get rid of this stuff.
Deer meat is likely to be just as poisonous in Maryland, but no one seems to care down here.
However, it is the oyster that may present the greatest threat to our health in the Chesapeake region. Our ancestors who settled this land nearly 400 years ago would be horrified. They understood the role of the oyster in the Chesapeake - “The Great River” - “The Great Shellfish Bay.”
An adult oyster can filter up to 30 gallons per day. Historically, oysters could filter the Chesapeake Bay's entire water volume in less than a week. When the vacuum cleaner oyster consumes PFAS it can’t break it down and the stuff accumulates. Hence, the million ppt of FFOS in a single oyster.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Mercury, and Trichchloroethylene (TCE) have all been recklessly discarded by the Navy at Pax River and they are all known to accumulate in Crassostrea Virginica - the oyster.
Many of the nation’s leading public health professionals warn us not to consume more that 1 part per trillion of PFAS daily. And the warnings they give often mention the threat posed by the tiniest amounts of PFAS to pregnant women and their unborn children. Women who may be pregnant should never consume food or water containing PFAS. Bad things happen to the baby. Although the state of Maryland hasn’t addressed PFAS contamination as an urgent public health issue like other states, pregnant women should not be consuming a meal of oysters containing 12 million ppt of PFOS.
It wasn’t a coincidence the researchers chose Hog Point on the Chesapeake Bay back in 2002. The scientific community and the Navy had been aware of the environmental impact of the firefighting foam containing forms of PFAS since the 70’s, but the naval command has long felt that using aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing PFAS was “mission critical.” The rhetoric from the Navy today treats PFAS like it is something new. They’ve known the damning science for two generations, and they’ve chosen to ignore it at our peril.
The real mind blower is that the Navy still uses the chemicals on bases throughout Maryland while non-toxic foams have been found to be equally effective against super-hot petroleum-based fires - and are extensively used around the world.
The old Burn Pad at Pax River was in use from 1972 to 1991. Pipes carried expired jet propellant fuel or waste oil to an old fuselage set in a 200 x 200-ft pit on a concrete pad. Fires were ignited and AFFF foam containing PFOS was used to extinguish them. AFFF was allowed to infiltrate into the ground and discharge to surrounding stormwater ditches and drains. Unknown amounts of AFFF foam were used while the Navy has still not released results from groundwater tests. The chemicals have been used in various locations on base, including in the overhead suppression systems in hangars that have malfunctioned on several occasions, spreading great volumes of the toxic foam into the environment.
Part 2: Maryland Announces It Will Test Water, Oysters for PFAS
The PFAS oyster issue has been dormant in Maryland for 18 years. Neither the Navy, the EPA, nor the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) publicly responded to the discovery that oysters contained a million parts per trillion of the dangerous toxins. Nor did they amend public policy as a result of the findings. “Forget about it,” has been their mantra.
In the last two months, however, there has been a surge in public interest regarding PFAS contamination of local water and the oysters, leading the Maryland Department of the Environment to announce it will test local waters and oysters for the toxic chemicals.
An independent test conducted by the author in February, 2020 found that water in St. Inigoes Creek close to the Webster Field annex of the Patuxent River NAS was found to contain 1,894.3 ppt of 14 types of PFAS. PFOS was found at a concentration of 1,544.4. The alarming results led the public to demand a thorough investigation by the state of local waterways and sea life adjacent to Pax River and Webster Field.
The $75 test of St. Inigoes Creek was conducted using a kit from Freshwater Future in Petoskey, MI. Freshwater Future uses the University of Michigan's Biological Station for all its testing. The water sample was analyzed following the EPA Method 537 Revision 1.1 for 14 perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Rather than expressing alarm or reassuring the public that measures would be immediately undertaken to assess the situation and steps would be taken to protect public health if seafood were found to be contaminated, a top Maryland official downplayed the significance of the results.
According to the Bay Journal, "Ira May, who oversees federal site cleanups for the Maryland Department of the Environment, suggested that contamination in the creek, if it exists, could have another source. The chemicals are often found in landfills, he noted, as well as in biosolids and at sites where civilian fire departments sprayed foam."
“There are multiple potential sources,” May said. “We’re just at the beginning of looking at all of those.”
Maryland’s top official charged with overseeing federal contamination cleanups seems intent on diverting the public’s attention from the Navy base as the source of the contamination in St. Inigoes Creek - and he seems to be borrowing time from the public for a long, complex process - engineered to cause the public to forget all about it. May is reading from the same script used across the country.
PFOS-laden foam was regularly discharged at Webster Field, approximately 2,400 feet south of the test site. It is unlikely the contamination originated from the closest fire station, located five miles away in Valley Lee, or from the St. Andrews Landfill, 11 miles away.
We don’t have time for May’s foolishness. Public health is in the balance.
Maryland’s track record on PFAS has been abysmal, and that may be partly attributable to the strong military presence in the state. A drinking water well was found to contain 70,000 ppt of PFOS/PFOA, in the state’s capitol, Annapolis two years ago, but there was no public outcry. The story was ignored by the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. People in Annapolis had been drinking the tainted water for years. The municipal well drew from groundwater under a former Navy weapons facility. 70,000 ppt is 1,000 times more than the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt. for drinking PFAS-laced water. Maryland’s Department of the Environment has been absent while the Air Force and the Army continue to contaminate huge swaths of the state.
While several states have been suing to stop the use of PFAS in fire-fighting foam at civilian locations like fire stations, the Maryland legislature recently passed HB 619, making Maryland the only state to specifically allow civilian PFAS use. The measure will ban the use of Class B fire-fighting foam that contains PFAS chemicals for testing or training purposes, but the bill gives the green light to PFAS use in other applications. The Maryland Department of the Environment which has thus far declined to regulate the substances, offered a letter of support for the legislation.
Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles now says PFAS “is a priority for us.” The department is finalizing a statewide survey for sites where PFAS have been used. They should start by looking at these 15 military bases in the state. We ought to remain skeptical and judge them by their deeds rather than their words.
In the meantime, there is reason for guarded optimism. The newly released St. Mary’s River Pilot Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Study has been launched to assess the occurrence of PFAS in surface water and oysters in and around St. Inigoes Creek, the St. Mary's River and the mouth of the Patuxent River.
The state will gather what it learns from the pilot program to be utilized in other locations in Maryland.
See the testing sites near Pax River and Webster Field below. Stay tuned for the results of the water and oyster tests. The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post still haven’t covered this story.