The move to shut off the city-owned Haven well, which is located near the main runway at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, means it’s now more likely the contamination that closed that well could travel to other wells, according to Scott Hilton, project manager for the state Department of Environmental Services’ Pease Superfund site.
“Now that the Haven well is shut off, we are concerned about the impact of the contamination flowing to the southern well field,” Hilton said Friday. This field is the site of the Smith and Harrison wells at Pease International Tradeport.
City officials closed down the city-owned Haven well last May after the Air Force tested the well and found levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) 10 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Provisional Health Advisory, Hilton said. The EPA has classified PFOS as a “contaminant of emerging concern” because of its potential harm to people. PFOS are a class of chemicals known as PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, according to state officials.
Testing done on the Smith and Harrison wells have found the presence of PFCs, Hilton said, but at levels below the Provisional Health Advisory. The wells are located under the Transportation Center off Grafton Road at the tradeport.
Hilton acknowledged the migration of the PFCs could potentially reach two wells that service the city of Portsmouth that are located across Route 33. In fact, tests have found the presence of PFCs in the two Portsmouth wells, Hilton said, but stressed they were at “very small, very, very low detections.”
The state Department of Environmental Services has worked with the Air Force to establish sentry wells around the Smith and Harrison wells and the two other Portsmouth wells, he said.
By turning off the Haven well, Hilton said, it’s more likely water in the aquifer at the tradeport will return to its normal course of running north to south.
“Groundwater flows pretty much from north to south,” he said, adding the Haven well is north of all four of the other wells. “The Haven well was capturing a lot of water, pulling it out of the aquifer,” Hilton said. “Now that the well has been shut off, the water will remain in the aquifer.”
Officials are testing the sentry wells to make sure they know when the PFCs start moving and how quickly, Hilton said.
“We’re looking at the groundwater flow and determining the risk and determining what actions need to be taken to prevent the southern well field from being contaminated,” Hilton said.
Mapping of the PFC contamination they’ve done so far shows contaminant “mainly around the Haven well.” “We’re currently in the process of talking to the Air Force and we’re going to try to upgrade the network” of testing wells, Hilton said.
Asked if the contamination would inevitably move to the other wells, Hilton said, “We’re in the beginning of this. I don’t want to speculate. We’re looking very closely at this movement.”
He noted the concern is elevated because officials believe the Haven well was contaminated by firefighters spraying firefighting foam on the runway at the former base, which is now an EPA Superfund cleanup site. Unlike an oil or gas spill that happened accidently, the PFCs got in the groundwater by “people spraying firefighting foam.”
“They actually purposely discharged it,” Hilton said. “It’s almost like the application of pesticide. The release mechanism is very widespread.”
Mayor Robert Lister acknowledged the threats to the other wells is “very concerning.” “But I’m confident we have people like him that are looking at this and studying this and getting the right information,” Lister said Friday. “I think we need to leave it up to the experts to determine how concerned we need to be.”
Lister believes it’s too early to talk about shutting down the other base wells. “The city is on top of this,” he said.
The threat of the PFC contamination spreading is just one of the contamination issues being dealt with at the tradeport.
Fire training site
Newmarket resident Anne McCurry said her late husband, Edward McCurry, died of cancer in 2000 after working for the Pease Fire Department in the 1960s.
Anne McCurry said during a recent interview that her husband would take part in drills at the firefighting training site, which is located at the north end of the runway, just off Arboretum Drive.
“He said it was horrible,” McCurry said of her husband’s experiences at the training site. “They put anything in, like chemicals, solvents, anything that would burn, and they would set it on fire.” She added, “And of course you’re in the military so you do it.”
She worries what impact that exposure to the drills and the firefighting foam might have had on her husband being diagnosed with cancer. But she acknowledged he also wore an asbestos fire suit during the drills.
“He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he was an outdoor guy,” she said. “All he could think of was the fire training.”
A 1984 report prepared for the Air Force noted that contamination at the fire training site had left pine trees in the area “dead or dying from the fuel-saturated ground.” The report speculated the contamination there might have caused the trichloroethylene contamination in the Haven well in the 1970s, but Hilton said they’ve since determined that’s not the case. Trichloroethylene, also known as TCE, is a degreaser for metal parts. The contamination likely came from other oil or fuel spills near the base’s main hangar, he said.
But the fire training site continues to be the site of extensive remediation. A recent visit to the site showed numerous pipes and monitoring wells safely secured behind a high barb wire fence. Officials believe PFCs from the site migrated to a private well in Newington, which has been contaminated.
A history of contamination
The Haven well had been turned off previously for a short period of time, when it was contaminated by TCE in the 1977, according to Hilton and EPA documents. The Air Force installed an aeration system to remove TCE from all base water supply wells, and the contaminant has dropped below detection levels, according to the EPA.
But in 2003, the Air Force issued a Record of Decision amendment for Zone 3. Zone 3 is in the central portion of the former base and occupies approximately 440 acres, according to a copy of the document. The amended ROD stated that while remediation efforts at the time were protecting the environment, “the long-term effectiveness is uncertain.”
“As long-term water demand from the Haven well increases, greater potential exists for groundwater contamination to migrate and threaten water quality at the (Haven) well,” the report stated.
Asked why given the previous contamination and the threat of new contamination, the well wasn’t shut down then, Hilton said, “If the Haven well went down, the tradeport would not have at the time an easily implemented alternative source.” The tradeport wasn’t connected to the city’s overall water network at the time, like it is now, he said.
He cited the amended ROD, which led to the Air Force putting in a water treatment system, as helping to protect the Haven well from other contamination. “It just didn’t treat for PFC contamination,” he said.
City Deputy Public Works Director Brian Goetz said the cost of replacing the Haven well could run anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million if it is on land the city already owns. If it isn’t, the cost can rise to as high as $3 million or more, especially if it has to be treated, Goetz said.
Andrea Amico, the Portsmouth resident who led the charge to make blood testing available to anyone who was exposed to PFCs at the tradeport, said she’s “surprised that they continued to use these wells.” Amico’s two children attend day care at the tradeport and her husband has worked there for eight years.
“I don’t think they should continue to use the remaining two wells that are open,” Amico said this week. “There are children on Pease that are exposed to this water, there are multiple restaurants that prepare food and there are thousands of workers there.”
If the Smith and Harrison wells were closed, and that led to higher water rates for city ratepayers, Amico said she would support that. “Personally, I would be willing to pay more for my water to know that it’s safe,” Amico said. “I don’t really know if you can put a price tag on health.”