A Dayton city leader wants the Pentagon to place Wright-Patterson Air Force Base groundwater contamination at the top of its environmental priority list to avoid contamination of underground drinking wells at Huffman Dam.
The city has issued a series of demands it wants to see the Air Force take, including financial reimbursement that has already approached $1 million, to prevent water contamination from threatening the groundwater supply of 3 million residents served by the underground aquifer, Dayton officials say.
The city shut down seven drinking water wells at Huffman Dam last April out of concern contamination from a firefighting foam sprayed at the base in past decades could potentially seep into the wells and has not resumed pumping since.
“What we are really interested in asking for Wright-Patt Air Force Base and their superior command is to really act with a sense of urgency and to become more actively involved in addressing the solutions to stop the migration of the contamination and begin strategizing around the clean-up,” Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said in an interview with this news outlet.
Dayton is pressing its case for urgency as Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig W. Butler found Wright-Patterson in violation last month of a state public nuisance law to prevent water pollution. The agency has ordered the base to submit a work plan within 30 days to better track the tainted groundwater and to prevent the threat of the plume reaching the Dayton well field, among other expected actions.
“The lack of urgency to take appropriate action is very concerning,” Butler wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Wright-Patterson installation commander Col. Bradley McDonald.
For the first time, Dayton detected polyfluroalkyl substances in the raw water intake at its Ottawa treatment facility late last year, according to city officials. The detection was at less than 10 parts per trillion, officials said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a lifetime threshold guideline of 70 parts per trillion.
City and state officials emphasized the city’s drinking water system has been and is safe today and the contaminant has not been found in water provided to residents and customers.
The city would like to turn the Huffman well field back on, “but we don’t want to turn them back on until it is safe to do so,” said Michael Powell, director of the city water department.
Wright-Patterson spokeswoman Marie Vanover said in an email Thursday the Air Force was committed to ensure drinking water does not exceeds federal health advisory thresholds. Over a year of water sampling, one well at the base boundary line exceeded the advisory of 70 parts per trillion “and it does not pose a risk to drinking water supplies,” she said.
The base will work with the city and the Ohio EPA to add additional groundwater monitoring wells this spring, she said.
She added Wright-Patterson is preparing a response to the state EPA’s demands.
In a statement Thursday to this news outlet, Butler said the state “has serious concerns and feels it is an unacceptable posture for the Air Force leadership to simply wait until contamination” exceeds federal health advisory levels.
“This demands that the Air Force immediately change its posture of waiting for a crisis to occur in order to take action, which is unacceptable,” he added.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she wants the Pentagon to put groundwater contamination at Wright-Patterson at the top of its environmental action priorities to protect Dayton’s drinking water.
“That’s what this effort is about because we have a ground water supply source that is so close to the base, we want them to clean up this site first before they do any of the other ones across the country.
“… Wright-Patterson doesn’t have a say in this,” she added. “It’s Washington, D.C. (that) has the say and that’s why it’s so important.”
In 2016, the Ohio EPA ordered Wright-Patterson to shut down two aquifer wells in used to supply water to the base that exceeded EPA thresholds. At the time, a health advisory was issued for pregnant women and breast-feeding infants, and the base provided bottled water to affected residents.
Wright-Patterson spent $2.7 million to build a water treatment plant and pumping at the wells returned to operation last year to supply the base, officials say.
The groundwater contamination on the base was believed to have come from a discontinued formula found in a firefighting foam sprayed at Wright-Patterson in past decades. The Air Force faces PFAS groundwater contamination issues at bases throughout the country.
Laura McAndrews, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the service branch has identified about 190 out of just over 200 installations where it will require additional investigation of groundwater contamination. Environmental clean-ups to treat water and soil take years, she noted.
The service branch has replaced the old firefighting foam that contains the contaminants with one it considers environmentally safer. That work was expected to be completed at Wright-Patterson by June, according to Vanover.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said his office has worked with the Department of Defense, Air Force and Wright-Patterson to deal with groundwater contamination at the base.
“It affects many bases across the country and the House Armed Services and Appropriations Committees have been working to ensure appropriate action is taken by the DoD,” he said in a statement. “I have additional information I think the Mayor will find helpful and look forward to working with her to ensure we maintain quality drinking water for our community.”
David Andrews, a senior scientist and groundwater expert at the Environmental Working Group, said the detection of the contamination in the area was a “significant concern.”
“…We do know that Air Force bases and places that use (Aqueous Film Forming Foam to fight fires) are one of the major sources at least in higher level contaminations,” he said.
The U.S. EPA has reported human epidemiology and animal testing studies indicate exposure to the contaminant suggest it may be responsible at certain levels for testicular and liver cancer; changes in cholesterol; low birth weight in newborns; liver tissue damage; and effects on the immune system and thyroid.
In response to potential of the threat of contamination, Dayton has demanded Wright-Patterson:
• Install additional wells along the base boundary line to establish groundwater gradient control;
• Determine how deep the contamination is along the base boundary area;
• Relocate a Mad River storm water discharge point by about 200 feet so it won’t flow pass a city water intake point;
• Share water data to allow the city to develop a response plan.
The demands were outlined in a Tuesday, Feb. 7 letter to McDonald from Dickstein. The city also notified thousands of water customers about the issue via email Thursday.
As part of its costs, Dayton has launched an estimated $575,000 environmental study to determine the scope of the issue and how to respond in the future. It’s also spent more than $300,000 on expanded testing and water sampling, Dickstein said.
Dayton city officials want the Air Force to reimburse the city for expenses and cover future costs to prevent contamination of the city’s water supply.
The shutdown of the Huffman Dam well field site was “a major disruption to the City and has already resulted in additional cost to operate its public well system” and the city’s recently commissioned environmental impact study was “only necessary because of the contamination from the Base,” the letter said.