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The Air Force polluted 4 SC bases with a toxic firefighting foam, didn't tell neighbors

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Four Air Force bases in South Carolina are severely contaminated with chemicals that scientists continue to investigate for possible links to thyroid disease, pregnancy complications, and kidney and testicular cancers.

The man-made chemicals are from an industrial foam the military used to extinguish fires at bases since 1970 — a toxic legacy that has only recently come to light. 

Three studies obtained by The Post and Courier show Shaw Air Force Base, Joint Base Charleston, the North Auxiliary Airfield and the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base are all saturated with the compounds — known as PFOS and PFOA. 

Some of the groundwater collected from the four sites contained chemical levels thousands of times higher than an advised limit laid out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

And at Shaw, in Sumter County, the study suggested the chemicals could leach into wells that provide drinking water to several nearby trailer parks.

"The groundwater in the area presents a potential hazard to human health," warned the report commissioned by the Air Force. "Drinking water may be impacted." 

South Carolina isn’t the only state where these contaminants have raised serious concerns. The Department of Defense found similar pollution in at least 27 other states, including Florida, Georgia and Virginia.

And the list continues to grow. 

Defense Department officials reported last year that nearly 400 Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force bases could be contaminated around the globe. And they noted that roughly 600 drinking water systems on or near military bases have already tested positive for significant levels of the pollutants. 

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The Shaw Air Force Base water tower is seen on base on Monday, July 1, 2019 in Sumter County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

For decades, the chemicals were valued for their unique properties. They create nonstick surfaces. They also are water and grease resistant.

That's why they were used to manufacture Teflon cookware, GoreTex clothing, stain-resistant carpets and the firefighting foam that was stockpiled by the military. 

The Air Force regularly used the foam during training exercises and aviation accidents. The product is now being phased out by the military, but that hasn't stopped federal lawsuits from popping up all over the country. 

“This is a nationwide public health issue that is not being treated like one," said Genna Reed, a policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists who has followed the growing number of bases that have tested positive for the chemicals.

"This is a problem that demands a concerted, urgent federal effort to stop the contamination where it is and to notify communities who live nearby,” she said.

Most of the environmental studies in South Carolina were completed over the past year. And all of them were shared with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

But not everyone was looped in on the findings.

The potential hazards

The people who live at the Crescent Motor Home Park are intimately familiar with the rhythms and routines of Shaw Air Force Base.

The small community is less than a mile from the runway where F-16 fighter jets roar into the sky. Residents who pay for an open lot or lease an available trailer can see the fence line for the military installation just across S.C. Highway 378.

Yet none of the families, retirees or military veterans who call the trailer court home were aware the Air Force found potentially hazardous chemicals less than a mile away from their drinking water.

The environmental study at Shaw was finished in January. But over the past six months no public notices were issued. No community meetings were held. And neither the Air Force nor the state health department tested the tap water at the communities that surround the base.

"Why don't they come and test this water?" asked Grant Head, a Navy veteran who has lived at the Crescent Motor Home Park for the past four years.

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Grant Head, a Navy veteran, cuts wood at his residence at Crescent Motor Home Park on Monday, July 1, 2019, in Sumter County. Head has lived next to Shaw Air Force Base for four years. New lab results show the tap water in the community contains man-made chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS for short. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

During the study, groundwater samples were collected from six locations around Shaw. And all six tested positive for the chemicals.

The highest levels were found under sections of the base where military personnel trained to fight fires. The Air Force used those locations year after year. Fires would be ignited and the foam would be showered over the area as practice for the real thing. 

From there, it soaked into the soil and down into the groundwater. 

The study, however, also found significant contamination near one of the airfield’s hangars and next to the base’s wastewater treatment plant.

The Air Force verified the six drinking water wells at Shaw are safe for the base's more than 4,000 service members. But it hasn't developed a plan to test the drinking water in nearby communities.

DHEC has no immediate plans to conduct that testing either. 

PFOA and PFOS aren't actually regulated by the EPA. The federal agency established a recommended limit for the chemicals in drinking water in 2016. But that limit remains unenforceable. 

Until it is, DHEC said it won't be monitoring for the chemicals.  

Meanwhile, Chris Bracey continues to drink the water at the Ideal Trailer Park. That community is less than a quarter mile from Shaw's wastewater plant. 

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Chris Bracey turns on a faucet at the Ideal Trailer Park on Monday, July 1, 2019 in Sumter County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

“I hope it don’t get anybody sick,” said Bracey, as he watched several children ride their bikes past the rows of trailers. “You got little kids out here drinking that water.”

Medical experts are still trying to determine what risk the chemicals pose to human health.

But they’ve already found some cause for concern.

Probable links

The initial research on this class of chemicals stemmed largely from one source: the blood of people living near Parkersburg, W.Va.

That city was home to a DuPont plant that manufactured Teflon products for more than 50 years. And, for much of its history, the community was unaware the factory was dumping PFOA into a tributary of the Ohio River.

By the early 2000s, the chemical had polluted the drinking water for several utilities downstream. Lawsuits were filed and internal studies emerged. Those studies showed DuPont knew about the toxic nature of the chemical for decades.

DuPont eventually settled the lawsuit over the polluted drinking water in 2005. As part of the deal, the company paid $5 million for a medical study to determine if the chemical could be tied to any diseases.

Nearly 70,000 people who lived or worked around the plant signed up to take part in the study. Their blood was tested, and for the next seven years researchers tracked each person’s medical outcomes.

The results were a first: They found “probable links” between PFOA and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

“Prior to that time, these were considered just obscure chemicals that received very, very little attention,” said David Savitz, an epidemiologist from Brown University who helped run the health study. “In the scientific literature and in regard to policy, it wasn’t on the radar screen at all.”

Research on PFOA and PFOS — officially known as perfluoroalkyl substances — has continued to evolve since that time. Lab studies have found growing evidence the chemicals may contribute to thyroid disorders, immune problems and developmental issues.

There's no guarantee that people who drink the chemicals will suffer negative health effects, Savitz said. But, until scientists can learn more, the safest option is to stop people from consuming the chemicals, he said.

“I don’t want to understate or overstate. It’s not like we have it nailed down,” Savitz said. “We haven’t exonerated these chemicals. It remains very much in play. There is a lot yet to learn.”

Savitz recently applied for a new pool of federal money that was set aside to further study the chemicals.

This time, he’s eyeing a new group of subjects: People who drank water laced with the firefighting foam.

'Trust but verify'

Here in South Carolina, the contaminated bases are near some of the most populated areas of the state. 

Only the groundwater at Shaw was classified as a direct threat to drinking water. But the Air Force plans to conduct additional testing at each site. They need to determine if the chemicals have migrated off the bases.

The water at the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, which was closed in 1993, has historically flowed off that airfield and into the Atlantic Ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway. 

It’s a similar story at Joint Base Charleston, which is home to a fleet of C-17 cargo jets. Nearly all of the contaminated sites at that base are within half a mile of Ashley River. 

The Air Force has yet to test whether the chemicals are traveling through the groundwater. But there’s already some evidence to suggest the contaminants might be making their way downstream toward the Charleston Peninsula.

In 2015, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pinpointed significant levels of PFOS in the Ashley River directly next to the air base. 

Andrew Wunderley, Charleston's Waterkeeper, said both the Air Force and DHEC need to be more transparent about the chemical contamination they detected. 

"They need to disclose this information publicly," he said. "Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Sitting on the study will not make it go away." 

Farther inland, the Air Force highlighted another issue. The study at the North Auxiliary Airfield noted that roughly 18 miles of river separate that site from the water intake for the city of Orangeburg. 

The report suggested the chemicals would be diluted in the North Fork Edisto River before they reached the water supply for Orangeburg's roughly 13,000 residents.

DHEC said it sampled Orangeburg's water for the compounds between 2013 and 2015, along with the state's other large water systems. Those results came back negative, the agency said. 

But that didn't satisfy local leaders. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, wants to know what the state health department is doing to follow up on the Air Force's findings.  

"Trust, but verify, is my motto," said Cobb-Hunter. "I find it hard to accept the Air Force's claim that it is not a threat."

The widespread use of the firefighting foam could become a "significant environmental liability" for the Defense Department, according to a report issued last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

But the companies that made that product could also be held financially responsible. 

Placing blame

Cities in Arizona and Massachusetts. Small towns in Maryland and Florida. Water utilities in California and New Jersey. Residents of Colorado and New Mexico. And the attorneys general of Ohio and New York.

They all have one thing in common: They want the companies that manufactured, marketed and sold the firefighting foam to pay for the damage that's been done. 

More than 100 lawsuits are pending in federal court over the environmental pollution and contaminated drinking water that's been caused by the foam. And the cases keep coming. 

A primary target in most of the litigation is the manufacturing giant 3M. The Minnesota-based company was one of the largest producers of the foam for decades.

The lawsuits allege 3M knew about the dangers the foam posed to the environment and human health. Even more, they accuse the company of hiding that information from federal regulators. 

The company denies those allegations. And it emphasized that it stopped producing PFOA and PFOS in 2000. 

“3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of (the firefighting foam) and will defend its record of environmental stewardship," said Fanna Haile-Selassie, a spokesperson for the company. 

The lawsuits started in federal district courts all over the country, but the litigation will play out in downtown Charleston. Richard Gergel, a senior U.S. District Court Judge in South Carolina, was tasked late last year with managing all of the cases. 

But none of them include a plaintiff from South Carolina. 

Back in Sumter County, William Byrd just wished someone would have told him about the tainted groundwater under Shaw. He and his wife, Shannon, recently signed a new lease on a trailer at the Crescent Motor Home Park.

The water is included with the rent.   

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Air Force studies were not publicly disclosed. The studies were linked on a website portal the Air Force maintains for bases across the country. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.