ABINGTON — A state action team gave updates Monday night on the progress they've made toward evaluating and cleaning up contamination from two local military bases, while local officials called for more action — faster.
"We're tired of the meetings. Let's get something going. Let's get some action going. We've been at this for five years," Horsham Township Manager Bill Walker said.
"If you talk to anyone here, you'l hear the same level of frustration: we're tired of meetings; we want action," Horsham Township Council President Gregory Nesbitt added.
A collection of state officials updated an audience of roughly 200 residents on the latest developments regarding their efforts to identify, classify and re-mediate hazardous chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contaminants, believed to have come from firefighting foams used at the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station and adjacent Horsham Air National Guard base.
Patrick McDonnell, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, heads a PFAS Action Team appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf last fall and moderated a panel of expert updates before responses from local officials and a public comment period from local residents.
McDonnell said the state has begun hiring and training lab staff to test for PFAS contaminants, is working toward developing a statewide standard minimum contaminant level and is working to pinpoint areas where those firefighting foams may have been stored, while updating state contracts to require less hazardous firefighting substances be used instead.
"We at DEP recognize the weight of this issue," he said.
State Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine said her department has asked for $1.4 million in the upcoming state budget to hire state toxicologists and other experts to help address the contamination.
Sharon Watkins, director of the state's Bureau of Epidemiology, gave an overview of a recent state Department of Health study evaluating 235 respondents chosen for blood testing.
"PFAS levels increased with age, meaning the older you are, the higher the PFAS levels were. Males had higher levels, and the longer you've resided in the community, the levels were higher," she said.
Other correlations were seen with higher body mass indexes, users of private water wells and higher consumption of tap water from areas found to have had contamination, Watkins said. The state plans to perform further analysis on those survey results and present findings at a public meeting in Horsham later this month, she said, and a national assessment led by the federal Center for Disease Control was announced April 1 that will study similar exposure at sites across the country.
Ramez Ziadeh, executive deputy secretary of PADEP, said that department has now acquired and installed the needed equipment for PFAS testing at state labs in Harrisburg, with three employees receiving training last month.
"DEP is also in the process of hiring a new staff member to supplement the PFAS testing efforts. I can also report that, today, staff attended a symposium in Baltimore for best practices for analyzing for PFAS chemicals," Ziadeh said.
"By the end of this month, DEP will assemble the data package required to get the testing process accredited in Pennsylvania, which will allow testing to commence as early as May 2019," he said.
Lisa Daniels, director of DEP's Bureau of Safe Drinking Water, said that department will start taking samples next month for a new round of water sampling meant to help identify and develop a maximum level for PFAS, with a goal of collecting 360 samples from affected public water systems and 40 more to use as a control group.
"I think it'll give us a really diverse set of sampling points for us to look at in terms of current levels across the state. The intent is, once the testing is completed, all of the results will be shared," she said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is working with similar state departments across the county, with the goal of setting a nationwide standard soon, according to Rick Rogers, associate director of DEP's Drinking Water and Source Water Protection group.
"We are expecting to issue a regulatory determination by the end of this calendar year," said Rogers.
"Once we get public comment on that, we would expect to issue, probably, a final determination by the end of 2020 and then move forward" with maximum levels for several different type of PFAS contaminants coming over the next several years, he said.
Chris Crockett, chief environmental officer for Aqua Pennsylvania, said his company has already brought all of their water wells and systems below the EPA's health advisory limit for PFAS, with treatment systems already installed on two, a third schedule to go online next month and a fourth with a new pilot program being installed.
"What do we need? We need EPA, DEP and the other federal agencies to take a more involved leadership role with the communities affected by this contamination," Crockett said.
"We need a science- and health-based MCL [maximum contaminant level], even if it's an interim one, and we need to make sure all systems are sampled and investigated by DEP for PFAS monitoring," he said.
Crockett drew applause from the audience when he said the military should pay for the cleanup at both bases since testing in recent months has found elevated levels of PFAS in the groundwater supply after heavy rains, indicating some source of contaminants on the base is still leaking.
"It's always cheaper and more effective to clean up the spill at the source," Crockett said.
"We need the base and the other contaminated sites to pump and treat that PFAS that's in the groundwater. We need them to contain the PFAS on site and treat it so it doesn't spread throughout our communities," he said.
Mike McGee, executive director of the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority, outlined the plans on the books for future development of the 862 acres of the former Naval Air Station and said a mix of residential, office and recreation uses could create up to 7,000 jobs in the township.
"This development is at a standstill and has been at a standstill since 2014 when we found out about PFASs. It's a crime to sit and watch that property decay even further," McGee said.
"We need standards, we need leadership and we need it fast," he said.
Walker and Nesbitt detailed the actions Horsham has taken over the five years since the contaminants were first found and local wells were shut down in the summer of 2014. In 2016, Horsham's township council declared that all wells within the township be taken down to nondetectible levels of the contaminants, with a short-term plan finalized in 2016 and a long-term plan scheduled to be finished by the end of this year.
"We came up with a plan in six weeks, gave those options to council, and they adopted it, and the short-term plan started implementation immediately," said Walker.
"Since April of 2017, Horsham has achieved this objective of nondetectible levels in our public drinking water," he said.
The Horsham Water and Sewer Authority did implement a surcharge to help cover the more than $1 million cost of adding new filtration systems to their wells found with the PFAS contaminants, Walker said, while the township has worked with multiple levels of government and branches of the military to try to get them all working together.
"There should be one coordinated response from the U.S. Department of Defense; currently, we are dealing with the Navy, the Air National Guard and the Air Force on different plans," he said.
"This contamination has no barriers. This contamination does not consider fence lines, property lines, township lines. There should be one plan to clean this contamination up," Walker said.
Nesbitt called on the state and federal agencies to fund blood testing for those in the affected areas, preferably on a volunteer basis, as soon as possible since Horsham's cleanup of their own wells may gradually remove traces of earlier contamination in residents' bloodstreams.
"It's imperative, because we have been exposed to long-term high exposure of these chemicals, that these tests be done immediately because with the non-detectible standard, our blood tests may show an artificial lowering that skews the study," he said.
"There should be a mechanism in place where our residents can get their blood tested now, rather than have to wait for grants, for processing and for studies," Nesbitt said.
He asked that the state officials work with other states that have already dealt with PFAS contamination issues to learn best practices and lean on their research.
"We just want speed. We want urgency, and we want results," he said.
As residents took the microphone to make public comments on the record, Nesbitt said the new filtration systems installed by the local municipalities may have reduced the sense of urgency at the state and federal level.
"The only results that have truly happened since 2015 are that Warrington, Warminster and, most of all, Horsham said 'We're going to go to non-detectible,' and I think in some ways, we've taken the pressure off of them," he said.
"If we hadn't done that, maybe they'd feel a lot more pressure, but it was the right thing to do," Nesbitt said.
Walker said the township's wish list also includes a statewide standard contaminant level that all parties can work toward and support from the state in asking the federal government to cover the costs incurred so far and those still needed.
"We're getting tired of the meetings. We're getting tired of the meetings. We're getting tired of repeating ourselves," Walker said.