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DoD Poisoning Sewer, Water Systems

The DOD is privatizing sewer systems nationwide to evade liability stemming from its indiscriminate use of PFAS chemicals. This case study from St. Mary’s County, MD provides lessons for communities across the country.

The DOD is privatizing sewer systems nationwide to evade liability stemming from its indiscriminate use of PFAS chemicals. This case study from St. Mary’s County, MD provides lessons for communities across the country.

(right) A sewer pipe from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station snakes its way into the St. Mary’s County (MD) Metropolitan Commission’s Marlay-Taylor Water Reclamation facility.

(right) A sewer pipe from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station snakes its way into the St. Mary’s County (MD) Metropolitan Commission’s Marlay-Taylor Water Reclamation facility.

The St. Mary’s County, MD Metropolitan Commission (MetCom) has said it is considering taking over the operation of the water and sewer utilities at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, (Pax River). The move is likely to entail unforeseen costs associated with meeting evolving environmental standards pertaining to the heavy use of PFAS chemicals on base since 1970. MetCom is a quasi-governmental agency established by the state to supply water and sewer services to St. Mary’s County.

MetCom and the Navy have been operating under a sewer service contract, with MetCom providing the base with sewer infrastructure and treating all its sewage facilities since 1969. St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan said it was “extremely important to move this thing forward.” The commissioners, he said, “should do our best to secure the long-term interest of the base and the community.”

A sewer deal may be in the “long-term interest” of the navy, but it is not a good move for the people of St. Mary’s County who will pay for costly remediation stemming from the Navy's use of the toxins.

The navy is anticipating costly liability from its use of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams on bases across the country. The navy is “getting out of the water and sewer business,” according to an industry expert familiar with the negotiations  between Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and the town of Oak Hill, Washington. Manufacturers of PFAS products are being sued in many states because of the devastating health impacts of these chemicals. The DOD is eager to shed its liability. 

According to an April, 2020 report by the GAO, from fiscal years 2016 through 2018, the DOD awarded 21 new contracts for privatized utility services on military installations. The DOD has 580 utility systems it now considers available for privatization!

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The deal in Whidbey Island has broken down with the town demanding four times what the Navy was willing to pay. The hang-up involves liability concerning environmental requirements. Whidbey Island is heavily contaminated with PFAS.

The wastewater collection system at the U.S. Navy Station Mayport, Florida is also being privatized. The base has contaminated the environment with PFAS stemming from firefighting exercises.

The towns of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth in Rhode Island are considering the purchase of the sewer system at the Naval Station Newport. It’s probably not a good idea for these towns, considering the level of PFAS contamination at the base and the potential for liability down the road.

So, it’s no surprise that a US House provision requiring the DOD to disclose the results of any testing for PFAS at current or former military sites was struck from the National Defense Authorization Act. Informing stakeholders of the true extent of the contamination would make it tougher for the Pentagon to walk away from its lethal behavior.

In September, 2020 the Defense Logistics Agency and the US Navy announced plans to offer the privatization of the Water and Wastewater utility systems at Pax River. The new owner will assume the responsibility for meeting environmental compliance, a big deal as regulatory agencies move to regulate these substances. 

Major legal developments are threatening the DOD, including a lawsuit filed by the state of Michigan and a massive group of cases in the District of South Carolina. The Navy is on thin legal ice over exposure to PFAS from AFFF used at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania. The court found that the plaintiffs lacked a cognizable cause of action because PFAS is not designated as a hazardous substance, although that could change.

St. Mary's MetCom ought to be careful here. The incoming Biden administration has signaled its intention to classify PFOS and PFOA, two substances that have flooded MetCom’s system, as hazardous chemicals, a designation that will activate CERCLA, or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, otherwise known as the Superfund law. If that happens, there may be hell to pay - for exorbitantly expensive cleanup measures. It's not certain how much of the liability to remediate sites the Navy will be able to evade by transferring ownership. 

​The price tag could reach many millions of dollars in St. Mary’s alone, while it is unlikely the stuff can be completely eradicated. 

Big Pine Run empties contaminants from Pax River into the Chesapeake Bay.

Big Pine Run empties contaminants from Pax River into the Chesapeake Bay.

Currently, there are no federal or state requirements to regularly test or monitor for PFAS in media other than drinking water, so we don’t know the exact scope of contamination at Pax River. Once in the environment, PFAS chemicals take an exceptionally long time to break down. St. Mary’s was settled nearly 400 years ago, and 400 years from now, people living on these shores may still be dealing with these contaminants.

​At the very minimum, MetCom should test drinking water, sewer sludge, and wastewater for the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and make the results public before entering into the deal. Big Pine Run and the Chesapeake Bay near the Marlay-Taylor Water Reclamation Facility ought to be tested. Fish and shellfish should also be tested, as well as the soils and crops where sludge is spread. All prior test results by civil and military authorities should be released.

All prior test results by civil and military authorities should be released.

History of AFFF use on the Patuxent River NAS

Following is an examination of the historic use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) on the Patuxent River NAS, with an analysis of the EPA’s new interim guidance on PFAS contamination.

The naval command has admitted to contaminating groundwater at the southwest corner of the base with PFAS chemicals up to a concentration of 1,137.8 parts per trillion, (ppt). See Site 34. We don’t know the extent of contamination at other areas of the base, like burn pits and hangars with overhead suppression systems, which are expected to have substantially higher levels of PFAS in the environment. 

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Hundreds of military hangars across the country are outfitted with overhead suppression systems like this.History of AFFF use on Pax River

Pax River has “foamed” Metcom’s sanitary sewer system with thousands of gallons of PFAS chemicals - like the navy has done to many municipal sewer systems adjacent to naval installations across the country and around the world.

David Steckler, the remedial project manager who runs the environmental restoration program for NAS Patuxent River said the Navy is "extremely early in the process" of testing sites on base for contamination. That was back in March, 2020 after 300 crowded into the local library to attend a public meeting on the navy’s use of PFAS. Many demanded to know the extent of the contamination in drinking water and the environment.

Nine months later, on December 8, 2020, Steckler told the St. Mary’s County Commissioners that the navy was still more than a year away from having test results for the public. The testing process began on base in 2016.

In 2018 Pax River reported that 16 sites were contaminated with AFFF containing PFAS on the base. Below, we’ll briefly examine the three sites that emptied the toxins into the Marlay-Taylor facility. The others, you can read about here.

Hangar 2133 Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft Hangar - There have been multiple releases of AFFF in 2002, 2005, and 2010 from the suppression system in the hangar. In at least one incident (date unknown) the entire system inadvertently went off. 

Hangar 2133 is equipped with four 1,000-gallon tanks of Ansulite 3% AFFF concentrate to supply the AFFF fire suppression system. Nozzles of overhead suppression systems are designed to discharge foam at several thousand gallons per minute. As recently as 1997 the Army Corps of Engineers recommended dumping AFFF after routine hangar tests into sanitary sewer systems. 

Hangar 2133, shown in red, is a “high priority” environmental site. AFFF was sent into Metcom's system and into a drainage ditch shown by the Red X.

Hangar 2133, shown in red, is a “high priority” environmental site. AFFF was sent into Metcom's system and into a drainage ditch shown by the Red X.

Chemicals from Ansulite 3% foam are entering our bodies. The Navy argues it's not hazardous.
​An unknown amount of AFFF foam during the 2010 release entered the sanitary sewer leading to MetCom which had to shut off sewage flow and deal with reactivated AFFF in all the aeration basins. This incapacitated the treatment facility. 

​AFFF has also been said to be pushed out of the hangar onto the grassy area southeast of the concrete apron. On at least two occasions (dates unknown) AFFF could be seen running down the storm culvert leading to the drainage ditch near Hangar 115. 

What's in the sludge and the wastewater and how is it harming us?

Building 1669 - A release of 500 gallons at most, from the overhead suppression system occurred in mid-2000s. This release reportedly went to an oil- water separator which leads to MetCom.

Hangar 2905 Aircraft Prototype Facility & Hangar - In 2011, 150 gallons went from the suppression system to the floor drain connected to the sanitary sewer leading to MetCom.

There’s been no independent verification or testing of any of these claims made by the navy. Unknown amounts of releases are typically reported.


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So, what does it mean?

The EPA just released its new interim guidance outlining the current state of the science on techniques and treatments that may be used to dispose of PFAS.

The EPA is very good at summarizing the science - and telling us what we need to do. They’re terrible at developing and enforcing regulations designed to protect human health. The EPA is seriously asleep at the switch, while a witch’s brew of PFAS chemicals, mostly from seafood and crops grown in contaminated soils continue to accumulate in our bodies.

The EPA is sounding a warning in its interim guidance that PFAS is in a league of its own. More than 6,000 varieties of PFAS seem to be popping up everywhere, like a dizzying game of whack-a-mole with thousands of moles that never die and have a potentially lethal bite. The tiniest amounts of these chemicals are linked to several cancers, fetal abnormalities, and a host of childhood diseases. 

The EPA’s interim guidance tells us they’re not sure how to manage PFAS. They’re uncertain about how to handle wastewater saturated with PFAS. They don’t know very much about incineration and how bad it likely is. They don’t know the extent of PFAS-tainted leachate that seeps from landfills, and the EPA is not sure about the contamination caused by spreading PFAS-contaminated sewer sludge on farm fields. They just don’t know what to do, so they’ve decided not to regulate the stuff in any meaningful way while agreeing to study it more. It’s been their playbook since way before the Trump disaster. 


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Special Projects Manager Ned Beecher of the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (NEBRA) says all wastewater contains PFAS. He would know.

The EPA says conventional wastewater treatment technologies are ineffective at destroying or controlling PFAS. The EPA recognizes the use of firefighting foams on military installations is a major contributor to wastewater effluent with high levels of PFAS, and it points to other sources which are likely present at military bases like Pax River, including mechanical components such as tubing, hoses, and seals; brake and hydraulic fluid additives; wire and cable insulation; used in coating/paint. When these items are discarded and sent to the landfill on base their PFAS components can migrate to leachate or landfill gas. Landfills create leachate, which is any liquid material that drains from land and contains significantly elevated concentrations of toxins (like PFAS) derived from the material that it has passed through.

PFAS isn’t the only harmful chemical found at the Pax River facility. 

The EPA does not know what percent of PFAS can be expected to remain within the confines of a landfill and it doesn’t have a handle on the efficacy of treatment options for PFAS captured by leachate and landfill gas systems. In other words, even if we can isolate the stuff, we don’t know what to do with it.

The gods must be crazy.

Marlay-Taylor discharges wastewater into Pine Hill Run.

Marlay-Taylor discharges wastewater into Pine Hill Run.

The wastewater from Marlay-Taylor is discharged into Pine Hill Run, shown here.The EPA recently announced that it is recommending (not requiring) the testing of wastewater across the country for PFAS. It’s a start, although they’re moving at a snail’s pace.

The wastewater from Marlay-Taylor is discharged into Pine Hill Run which ebbs and flows into the bay with the tide. Catfish, bluegill, and largemouth bass are found in the upper reach of Pine Hill Run, while common carp, white perch, and other fish associated with tidal creeks are found where the creek meets the bay.

The on-base wastewater system is currently operated by the Navy. Metcom’s Executive Director, George Erichsen said there are 300 buildings and 50% more wells than MetCom currently operates, as well as 50% more generators, 25% more water lines in terms of length, 20% more sewer lines, double the number of water storage tanks and 50% more sewer pump stations. It’s a massive undertaking for this small, largely rural county. 

Leachate flows from a landfill. "Strange brew. Kill what’s inside of you." - Cream "She’s a witch of trouble."

Virtually all landfills in the US contain PFAS chemicals, especially the landfills on military installations. Landfills are not currently required to treat leachate for PFAS.

Leachate that seeps from landfills 

Leachate that seeps from landfills 

​According to the EPA, the most common method for leachate disposal is off-site treatment at municipal wastewater treatment plants, where leachate is mixed with wastewater. Pax River’s landfill leachate is conveyed via underground piping to MetCom. Some of the PFAS from the leachate is likely to head out to the bay to contaminate the rockfish, crabs, and oysters. 

Let's talk about PFAS in sewer sludge.

Sewer Sludge 

Each year more than 700,000 wet tons of sewage sludge are generated in Maryland, according to the MDE. Marlay-Taylor produced 5,496 total wet tons. Of that amount 2,781 wet tons were sent to farms in Virginia while 2,714 wet tons were spread on Maryland farm fields.

PFAS in the sludge is poisoning our food.

PFAS in the sludge is poisoning our food.

117.49 wet tons were applied to farmland in Charles County while Calvert County received 2,597 wet tons. We don't know the names of the farms.

See: 2019 Annual Report Sewage Sludge Generators - Marlay-Taylor Wastewater Reclamation Facility. 

PFAS in the sludge contaminates crops being grown for human and animal consumption. For PFOS and PFOA, the two types of PFAS most frequently studied, food tops drinking water as the most prevalent way the toxins enter our bodies. ‘Fish and other seafood’, ‘Meat and meat products’ and ‘Eggs and egg products’ are the three top pathways for PFOS. ‘Milk and dairy products’ ‘Drinking water’ and ‘Fish and other seafood’ lead the list for PFOA, according to the European Food Safety Authority.

Tomatoes grown in soils bought from hardware stores may be toxic.

Tomatoes grown in soils bought from hardware stores may be toxic.

In an ironic loop, some of the PFAS ingested from food are excreted in human urine and feces and sent back to the water treatment plant. 

PFAS is often found in bags of compost purchased from hardware stores. These tomatoes may be toxic.
​There are five major ways that sludge is used in the state. An estimated 50 percent of the sewage sludge produced is applied to agricultural land, 18 percent is made into commercial soil supplements, including the kind available at hardware stores, and 21 percent is used for land reclamation such as restoring surface mines. The remaining 11 percent is disposed in landfills or incinerated. All of these practices are likely to threaten public health. ​​


In 2018 Pax River sent 1,035 pounds of AFFF with heavy concentrations of PFAS to the Norlite facility in Cohoes, NY to be incinerated. Scientists say the practice is a danger to public health because the stuff doesn’t burn, and instead, sprinkles toxins on downwind communities.

Patuxent River NAS sent PFAS to Cohoes, NY to be incinerated in 2018.

Patuxent River NAS sent PFAS to Cohoes, NY to be incinerated in 2018.

The EPA says it doesn’t know how to measure the toxicity of the emissions. Meanwhile, the DOD has been free to incinerate millions of gallons of PFAS foams - in keeping with its policy to shed potential liability down the road. 

Environmental and community groups have sued the DOD over its contracts to burn millions of gallons of unused firefighting foam containing PFAS in incinerators across the country. The DOD is the nation’s largest user of firefighting foam containing PFAS.

Navy speak - “There is no current complete exposure pathway to people from releases of PFAS to on or off base receptors.”The Pax River command contends that there is no threat to public health as a result of its use of PFAS on the base for 50 years. The command says, “There is no current complete exposure pathway to people from releases of PFAS to on or off base receptors.” The Navy defines “human receptors” as “any users of drinking water on or off the base with ingestion considered the major exposure pathway.”

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We know the primary route of exposure to PFAS is through the diet, especially seafood from contaminated water bodies. Rockfish, crabs, and oysters have been tested in St. Mary’s and all show dangerous levels of the toxins. The state refuses to recognize the public health consequences posed by these chemicals. 

PFAS may be treated in municipal drinking water systems. It is an entirely different situation, however, when it comes to contaminated wastewater, sewer sludge, surface water, groundwater, and incineration. All contribute to the wholesale contamination of seafood and farm produce. It's overwhelming.

Wastewater from the base is likely to be highly contaminated. If MetCom and the county agree to take on the Navy’s sewer system, MetCom’s rate payers may be accepting huge liability down the road - and that’s part of the Navy’s plan for these forever chemicals.

pat elder 2019

Small communities across the country like St. Mary’s County, Maryland, must practice due diligence. 

​Let the buyer beware!

Pat Elder