The tiny Eastern North Carolina community of Atlantic has joined a growing list of military areas across the country affected by contaminated drinking water.
The Navy is providing bottled water after two private groundwater wells in Atlantic, an unincorporated area in Carteret County with a population of less than 600, tested positive for elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Atlantic sits on the Core Sound, just west of the Outer Banks.
The chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are used to make products more stain-resistant, waterproof and nonstick, and they appear in common household products such as cookware, carpets, food packaging and clothes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
They are also found in firefighting foam used by the Department of Defense beginning in the 1970s.
The Navy tested more than 250 wells near Marine Corps Outlying Landing Field Atlantic, a World War II-era field that is now used for helicopter training. The landing field supports training operations for Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
“We are doing further testing on the airfield to see if we can detect anything on the airfield. What we want to do is find out if there’s any on the airfield or if we can find a link. Are we causing it?” said Mike Barton, a Cherry Point spokesman. “It’s going to take a lot more study to determine whether the detection in the community is linked to the airfield. ... It’s a hunt. It’s an investigation.”
North Carolina is also dealing with air and water pollution from GenX, an unregulated chemical that the company Chemours produced commercially in the Fayetteville area as a replacement for the toxic PFOA. The company spilled the chemical into the Cape Fear River for years, according to the state. The river provides drinking water for residents from Fayetteville to Wilmington.
In 2016, the EPA set stricter limits on the amount of the chemicals allowed in drinking water, citing adverse health impacts such as low birth weight, accelerated puberty, cancer and liver, immune and thyroid effects from exposure to PFOS and PFOA, according to the EPA.
The Defense Department identified 393 installations with a known or suspected release of PFOS or PFOA in a Dec. 31, 2016 document. That number included six sites in North Carolina: Fort Bragg, Cherry Point, Charlotte Air National Guard Base, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Stanly County Airport. The Department of Defense spent more than $800,000 by the end of 2016 to investigate the problems at North Carolina installations, according to the document.
But it is a nationwide issue. The Navy is doing testing and cleanup at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle, at former Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center and former Naval Air Station Willow Grove just north of Philadelphia, near Naval Auxillary Landing Field Fentress in southeastern Virginia near the North Carolina border and at possibly dozens or more other facilities across the country.
“As of August 31, 2017, the military departments have sampled in excess of 2,600 groundwater wells for PFOS/PFOA on 90 installations where they suspect or know there is a release of PFOS/PFOA. Of these 2,600 groundwater wells, 1,621 have groundwater sampling results of PFOS/PFOA exceeding the EPA lifetime health advisory,” said Heather Babb, a Department of Defense spokesman, in an emailed statement.
The Defense Department spent nearly $200 million by the end of 2016 on “environmental restoration funding to address PFOS/PFOA releases,” Babb said.
Total costs could exceed $2 billion, according to reports.
The Navy’s policy is to provide bottled water immediately.
An estimated 750,000 people at Camp Lejeune were exposed to toxic drinking water from 1957 to 1987, leading to congressional legislation in 2012 and millions in payments to families affected by any of 15 illnesses spelled out in the legislation including a variety of cancers.
Retired Marine Jerry Ensminger’s 9-year-old daughter Janey died in 1985 of leukemia. She was born while he was stationed at Camp Lejeune. Ensminger, a White Lake resident, fought for more than a decade to get answers about his daughter’s illness.
Ensminger said this week of the pollution in Atlantic: “It’s one more indication of the Department of Defense’s disregard for human health and the environment. Prior to the PFOS and PFOA with this foam, it was the degreasers and fuel. They don’t care. Eventually, the American people, especially with a country that is depending on an all-volunteer force, are going to get wise to this.
“They need to use more care while they have their sons and daughters and husbands and wives and loved ones in their service.”
In Atlantic, the Navy is only in the first stages of what could be a years-long investigation and cleanup, particularly if the source is found on the base. The Navy has held three public hearings and offered free well testing through the beginning of March. No more public testing of wells is scheduled at this point.