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Jun 8, 2018 12:01 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Reports Of PFOS, PFOA Contamination Expected To Continue: Officials

A GAC filtration system in Westhampton Beach. AMANDA BERNOCCO
Jun 8, 2018 12:01 PM

A pair of unregulated chemicals recently found lurking in drinking water supplies have been wreaking havoc across the region.

The chemicals—known as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA—have been popping up with an increased frequency in several hundred private and municipal water wells in the past couple of years on the South Fork, and across the state.

The risks associated with the chemicals may still be largely unknown, although officials have been quick to warn people away from contaminated water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the health advisory level for water containing the chemicals at 70 parts per trillion, or 0.07 parts per billion—meaning that water containing that concentration or higher should be avoided. The threshold, experts warn, will decrease once more information about the chemicals is discovered. The exact health effects are also unclear. The EPA suspects that the chemical could be linked to cancer, but specific evidence is still unavailable.

The chemicals have been found in areas like airports, where industrial firefighting foam was used in the past to train firefighters, and in other materials, such as grease-resistant fast-food containers, like pizza boxes and takeout food containers.

The threshold set by the EPA is only an advisory, meaning that it’s only suggested that contaminated wells not be used and there are no repercussions for those who continue to use contaminated wells.

To add fuel to the fire, experts suspect the fervor over the PFOS and PFOA contamination in recent years has been just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

“I think it’s a very big deal,” said Kevin McAllister, the founder of Defend H2O and a former Peconic Baykeeper. “I think we’re just scratching the surface on water contamination on the East End.”

Mr. McAllister, who has spoken out to the East Hampton and Southampton town boards about the contamination, said in a recent interview that he wouldn’t be surprised if the region continues to see more cases of PFOS and PFOA contamination as more testing and research is conducted.

So far on the South Fork, plumes of water contaminated by the pair of chemicals have been detected in Westhampton, Hampton Bays, East Quogue, and Wainscott.

The contamination reports started rolling in during the spring of 2016.

In May 2016, more than 100 private and public drinking water wells near Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton were found to have traces of the chemicals.

Authorities believe that the contamination will eventually be traced back to firefighting foam used at the airport property, as well as 1.4-Dioxane, a colorless liquid commonly referred to as dioxane, that is associated with industrial greasers, laundry detergent and common household items like soap.

About the same time, the chemicals were detected in a Hampton Bays Water District well. On May 27, 2016, testing results showed the well showed 82 parts per trillion of PFOS and PFOA contamination in the drinking water. By December 2017, three of the water district’s 11 wells had contamination above the health advisory level.

All of the wells were turned off when testing revealed the contamination levels were above the health advisory level; carbon filtration systems were later installed in the wells, which are expected to be turned back on this month.

In Wainscott about 140 private wells near the East Hampton Airport were found last summer to have PFOS and PFOA contamination—although an exact source of the contamination has yet to be officially identified. Of the contaminated wells, nine homes reported levels of the chemicals above the health advisory level, and another 131 wells have been found to have traces of the chemicals below the health advisory level.

Since the detection, East Hampton Town declared a state of emergency in the hamlet of Wainscott and allotted $400,000 in funding to provide grants to homeowners with tainted wells to help pay for in-home water filters.

The town also has put in motion a plan to pay to connect all homes to Suffolk County Water Authority mains by the end of this year in the portion of the hamlet where contamination is believed to be a threat.

The extension of the water mains could cost town taxpayers more than $24 million, about half of which could be borne by all town residents and the rest by homeowners in the affected area.

Additionally, in East Quogue the former Damascus Road landfill, which is owned by Southampton Town, was also identified as a potential source of contamination of 24 surrounding private wells.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter von Scoyoc said last week that he believes that as more testing is performed for the chemicals, an increased number of detections will be found in other wells all over the South Fork. Mr. von Scoyoc explained that officials are mainly testing for the chemicals near airports, but he suspects more cases will be appear when testing branches out further.

The town supervisor also pointed to a flaw in the process for testing for unregulated chemicals: Chemicals are often not tested for health safety risks before entering the marketplace. Instead, there is an apparent pattern of a chemical being used for decades before its health risks are known.

Mr. McAllister said the rising reports of contamination across the region rings similar to the detections of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MtBE, a colorless gasoline additive, that made its way into local aquifers years ago.

Like the PFOS and PFOA contamination, MtBE also created plumes in the groundwater that ultimately affected downgraded homes.

“I think it has a lot of similarities,” Mr. McAllister said.

Henry Bokuniewicz, a groundwater expert and a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, warned that it’s not easy to stop contamination once it hits the groundwater. Generally speaking, to stop such contamination from flowing through the groundwater, one must take two steps: detect the source of the plume, then find a treatment.

But getting to the root of the problem isn’t as easy as it seems.

“This stuff is hard to treat,” Mr. Bokuniewicz said.

The Stony Brook professor explained that experts often use a sophisticated U.S. Geological Survey model called Modflow that can predict the way groundwater flows to look ahead and see where a plume will go next.

Mr. Bokuniewicz said that once the location of the plume is detected, officials can use monitoring wells to help determine how the contamination is progressing. “It’s a calculation,” he noted.

While the plume can be difficult to find, Mr. Bokuniewicz added that officials treating the contamination have time on their side, as groundwater only moves a few inches to one foot, per day.

When private wells are contaminated, the solution is often to hook the homeowner up to a public water main. Connecting to the Suffolk County Water Authority could cost thousands of dollars, depending on the home’s proximity to the water main. The water authority allows the service to be financed, and it can be expedited if documentation of contamination is provided.

But there are other—albeit, shorter term—fixes. Filters can be installed on wellheads for a couple hundred dollars, depending on the brand and its effectiveness.

Granulated activated carbon filters, or GAC, are among the most common filters used to filter out chemicals—including PFOS and PFOA. The filters strain contaminants from the water, similar to Brita filters used in household water pitchers. The DEC started using the GAC filters for PFOS and PFOA in 2016 when the first report of the contamination appeared in the public water supply in Hoosick Falls, a small village in upstate New York, according to officials in the DEC’s division of environmental remediation.

The GAC filter has proven to be “very effective,” they said.

Since the Hoosick Falls contamination, DEC officials have reportedly been testing more frequently near fire training centers and airports—where the firefighting foam was commonly used—as well as near other common sources of contamination, such as landfills.

Target areas for testing for the chemicals could continue to expand as more is learned about the chemicals, according to the DEC.

And it wouldn’t surprise Mr. McAllister if more plumes are discovered from that testing.

“It’s uncharted territory,” he noted.

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