Horsham criticizes water contamination cleanup in series of letters


“Increasingly frustrated,” “difficult to work with,” and “unacceptable.”

These are just a selection of phrases from a series of seven strongly worded letters Horsham officials sent to various government agencies last week, expressing the township’s objections to how ongoing water contamination in the area is being handled.

The letters, dated July 28 and obtained by this news organization, were sent to officials of the Air Force, Navy and National Guard Bureau, as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the office of Gov. Tom Wolf.

At issue is the contamination of local water supplies by unregulated chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The presence of the chemicals in drinking water forced the shuttering of approximately 16 public and 150 private drinking water wells in Horsham, Warminster and Warrington in the past two years. As many as 70,000 people might have been exposed to the likely toxic chemicals in their drinking water.

The chemicals are suspected to have originated in firefighting foams used at the former Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster, the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, and the active Horsham Air Guard Station.

The Horsham Township letters, also signed by officials of the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority and the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority, criticize the military for the slow speed of some cleanup operations. It also characterizes oversight and communications from the EPA and DEP as being disorganized and inconsistent.

A bulk of the criticism is levied at the National Guard Bureau, a branch of the Air Force that operates the Horsham Air Guard Station. As previously reported, well sampling conducted by the military in 2015 suggested that contaminated water emanating from the guard station was polluting nearby Park Creek through a series of unnamed tributaries on the base. But nothing was done until recently.

Polluted water was also being discharged into Park Creek from a nearby Horsham Water and Sewer Authority treatment plant, because the facility was processing contaminated water from the guard station’s sewer systems, but didn’t have equipment in place that could filter out the chemicals.

While a temporary filtration system was installed at the guard station last month to remove the chemicals from its water supply, Horsham stated in its letters that surface waters coming from the base are still polluting Park Creek and downstream waterways.

“Stormwater discharged from the (guard station) to the tributary of Park Creek flows to the Little Neshaminy Creek, affects downstream neighbors, and also affects public water suppliers who draw from the Neshaminy Creek. This is unacceptable,” the letters noted.

This problem is also the focus of an emergency order issued by the EPA to the Air Guard Station on July 12, a copy of which was obtained by this news organization.

The order noted that water samples taken from a stormwater basin on the northern portion of the guard station showed PFOA and PFOS levels reached as high as 4.61 parts per billion (ppb) in the basin. That level is more than 66 times the EPA’s recommended limit for drinking water.

The EPA stated that by draining into Park Creek, the stormwater basin “may contribute to high levels of these contaminants in numerous private water wells in the vicinity of the Little Neshaminy Creek.”

The EPA ordered the guard station to sample private drinking water wells in the vicinity of the Little Neshaminy Creek east of Street Road by mid-September, and also produce a cleanup plan to “control PFOS and PFOA in the stormwater discharging from the (guard station) to a tributary of Park Creek.”

In its letter to the Air Force, Horsham officials lambasted the cleanup timeline, stating that if a proposal isn’t submitted until September, they believe the actual cleanup wouldn’t begin taking place until mid-2017.

“The timetable by EPA is insufficient to handle a problem of this magnitude,” the Horsham letter stated. “This timetable may be the norm for the federal government, but it is not acceptable, considering the pervasive nature of the PFOS/PFOA contamination.”

Further, Horsham officials stated they believe the Air Guard Station is dragging its feet on cleanup operations.

“We have grown increasingly frustrated with the unacceptably deliberate pace of the (guard station) surface water remediation efforts,” the letter stated. “Our perception is that the (guard station) is seeking to place blame for the contamination on the Navy instead of working cooperatively and aggressively to remediate the issue.”

Horsham officials requested the National Guard Bureau work with the Navy and EPA to develop a cleanup plan that can be implemented by the end of the year. Barring that, Horsham requested that “measures must be taken to isolate the contaminated surface water and prevent it from leaving the property owned by the federal government.”

While Horsham’s harshest words were reserved for the National Guard Bureau, officials also chastised the Air Force for not taking a more active role in pushing the Guard Bureau into action.

“As the branch of the United States military responsible for this federally-owned property, we believe that you must become an active participant in the remediation efforts,” the letters stated. “The (guard bureau) has acted only after the issuance of EPA orders. We would like to see that change.”

In its letters, Horsham was also critical of the EPA and the Pennsylvania DEP. The letters stated that the EPA’s use of two oversight departments — the Region 3 Hazardous Site Clean-up Division for NASJRB and the Region 3 Water Protection Division for the guard station — has led to a lack of coordination.

“Efforts could be better coordinated if the EPA did not have two different officials directing its efforts … going forward there must be one point of contact authorized to act on EPA’s behalf to increase the speed of decision-making,” the letter stated.

Further, the letter stated that while the Navy has been “very forthcoming” with sharing information with Horsham, the guard bureau “does not freely share information, and the EPA does not seem to consistently include local entities in the distribution of its correspondence.”

Similar criticisms were leveled in letters to the DEP’s regional and central offices. Horsham officials stated that while the DEP’s Southeast Regional Office Environmental Cleanup Group has “consistently participated” in meetings and communications, the office’s Safe Drinking Water Group and Clean Water Group have been involved infrequently.

“We believe the overall matter of (PFOA and PFOS) necessitates coordinated effort and participation from all three DEP program areas, which thus far has been significantly lacking,” the letter states.

A letter expressing the township’s concerns with the DEP was also sent to the governor’s office.

This news organization reached out to the Navy, Air Force, National Guard Bureau, EPA and DEP for comment mid-day Wednesday. Responses were not received by press time.

Bonnie Smith, press officer with the EPA, said the agency intends to provide answers to our questions within the next several days.

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