Bad News about Toxic Groundwater for Westminster, Maryland, and the Surrounding Region

Where’s the PFAS coming from in Westminster? The MDE should test the groundwater and the surface water in these locations to start finding out: Blue - Carroll County Regional Airport Brown - Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant Red - Carroll County Public (Fire) Training Center; Green - Northern Landfill

The PFAS contamination recently reported in your drinking water 
is likely to be much worse than you’ve been led to believe.

 A story in the Carroll County Times recently reported that PFOS and PFOA levels were detected at 154.96 parts per trillion (ppt) in one of  Westminster’s 10 drinking water wells. In nearby Hampstead, the two substances totaled 249.3 ppt in one of 15 wells serving the town. These results are likely to be the tip of the contaminated iceberg.  The EPA has issued an “advisory” to states suggesting they limit water containing more than 70 ppt for two types of PFAS – PFOS and PFOA.

PFOS and PFOA are just two of more than 6,000 varieties of these dangerous toxins known as PFAS, or per-and-poly fluoroalkyl (floor al kull) substances.  These chemicals in the smallest amounts are linked to a host of cancers and alarming fetal abnormalities.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), despite its public pronouncements, is still not taking the threat of PFAS seriously, and that’s too bad for a town like Westminster.

Sure, the MDE says it will have sampled 137 public water treatment systems for PFAS compounds by the end of February, but that’s less than 4% of the state’s 3,653 public water systems. Some states have already tested their public water systems. For instance, see the 13,102 records of PFAS testing in Massachusetts. 

Maryland has the ability to test for 36 different varieties of these chemicals, although we only know the results of two of these compounds from Carroll County. What PFAS compounds did the MDE test for in all 25 wells in Westminster and Hampstead? Where, exactly were those tests conducted, and where are the results? Everything ought to be made public. 

Lee Currey, Director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s water and science division, told the Baltimore Sun in June, 2020 that “Only limited information may be released publicly about where drinking water testing ultimately is conducted.” He said the state keeps secret the locations of drinking water supplies out of what he called “homeland security concerns.” Although the military is believed to be responsible for most of the PFAS contamination in Maryland’s environment, it is unlikely the DOD had much to do with poisoning the water in Westminster and Hampstead.

It’s a safe bet that the total of all PFAS concentrations in the drinking water is two to three times higher than the levels reported in Westminster and Hampstead.

Some states, like Vermont, have established enforceable maximum contaminant levels of 20 ppt for the total of 5 separate types of PFAS: (PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS,  PFHpA, and PFNA).  Massachusetts also regulates the same five, with the addition of PFDA, to 20 ppt in drinking water.  These states have come under fire for not regulating all PFAS varieties that are currently able to be tested.  Meanwhile, a growing chorus of public health professionals is warning us to keep our ingestion of PFAS in drinking water under one part per trillion per day.  

The EPA does not consider PFAS to be hazardous, so it doesn’t regulate the substances. Their obstinance is criminal. If the EPA classified PFAS to be hazardous substances and subjected them to the Superfund law, the Pentagon would be hit with tens of billions of dollars in liability – or more. Instead, the EPA washes its hands of the contaminated water by issuing a non-mandatory advisory.  Meanwhile,
Maryland is dragging its feet, apparently satisfied to wait for the EPA’s lead.  

I’ll examine the four likely sources of contamination identified above and suggest other places to look for the toxins.

                                                                      Carroll County Public Safety Training Center


                                                                           University of Maryland – Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute

Hampstead’s town manager suggested the high levels of contamination could have been due to the local  firefighter training facility. Presumably, she is referring to the Carroll County Public Training Center, located at 50 Kate Wagner Road. The facility is affiliated with the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, MFRI.  The institute is believed to have trained firefighters in the use of PFAS foams to extinguish petroleum-based fires across the state. MFRI has regional training centers in: Princess Anne, Crespatown, Edgewood, Centerville, Mount Airy, and LaPlata. Groundwater and surface water at these locations ought to be tested by the Maryland Department of the Environment for PFAS contamination if it is confirmed that these toxins were used in fire training exercises. Private well owners within a 2-3-mile radius of the confirmed releases ought to have their wells tested at the state’s expense. 

The facility on Kate Wagner Road is located across the street from Robert Moton Elementary School, close to the banks of Middle Run which flows into Liberty Reservoir. Firefightng foams seep into the ground and may find their way to private wells and they empty into creeks and rivers.

                                                                       Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant


                                                                      Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant dumps toxins into Little Pipe Creek.

The MDE should be testing the influent and effluent for PFAS at wastewater treatment plants (WWTP’s) throughout the state. The Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant, like all treatment plants across Maryland, releases toxic wastewater containing PFAS into the environment. The Westminster facility discharges to the Little Pipe Creek, a tributary to Double Pipe Creek, a major tributary to the Monocacy River.  

Special Projects Manager Ned Beecher of the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (NEBRA) says all wastewater contains PFAS. He would know.

The Westminster WWTP  produces 5,187 tons of sludge annually. Sludge from the plant is transported and applied to farmland or transported to a landfill in Virginia.  The MDE should immediately identify these farms and test the soil, groundwater, surface water, and the crops for PFAS contamination. These chemicals take forever to break down and they’re practically impossible to destroy.

It’s an inconvenient truth that most of the PFAS in our bodies comes from food that is grown in contaminated soils and from the fish that are caught from contaminated waters.

The Westminster WWTP receives and treats leachate removed from county landfills that are often loaded with PFAS. Items like carpets and couches are saturated with PFAS. When they’re buried in Carroll County’s rich soil the rains come and like a giant coffee maker, or a subterranean teabag, they create liquid runoff, often saturated with PFAS.  

The Hampstead WWTP dumps its toxins into Piney Run, within the headwaters of Loch Raven Reservoir. The Hampstead Sewage Treatment Plant generates approximately 943 wet tons of sludge per year. Dry sludge is taken to the Northern Landfill for disposal while dewatered sludge is hauled for composting to McGill, Virginia, according to the Carroll County Water and Sewer Master Plan. The Manchester WWTP also sends its sludge to the Northern Landfill.

McGill – Waverly in Virginia recycles the organic wastes it receives to make compost products. The company composts biodegradable materials sourced and harvested from municipal, industrial, agricultural and commercial waste generators.  The company also produces landscape mix for gardeners. The MDE should be testing commercially available  compost and soil mix for PFAS and taking measures to remove these products from retail shelves.

Disposing PFAS-tainted sludge in the landfill will end up as toxic leachate and is likely to contaminate ground or surface water via a number of pathways.

The MDE should be testing for PFAS in fish and all seafood near these obvious locations. Human health may be threatened even when tiny minnows in small streams carry high levels of PFAS. Bigger fish feed on smaller contaminated species while they also consume the chemicals through their gills. PFAS is bioaccumulative, meaning PFAS in our creeks and rivers containing just a few parts per trillion of the chemicals may cause fish to be contaminated with many thousands of parts per trillion. Some fish near military installations have been found to contain nearly 10 million parts per trillion of the fluorinated surfactants.

                                                                                                          Northern Landfill


                                                                            The Northern Landfill –             photo Carroll County Government

Landfills create leachate, which is any liquid that has percolated through solid waste or another medium and has extracted, dissolved, or suspended materials from it, which may include PFAS.

In 2015 alone, Carroll County collected and transported for treatment, over 9 million gallons of leachate. Most of it was sent to the Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant via tank truck.  What’s in the leachate?  Where does it go? Is it making us sick?


  A leachate pond.

                                                                                               Carroll County Regional Airport

Fire-fighting foam containing PFAS has likely been used at most, if not all civilian airports in Maryland. Fire departments throughout the state are all likely to have used or handled the Class B aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF). The MDE should immediately confiscate all of these materials and test the groundwater and surface water where they were used.  Flourine-free foams prove to be a suitable alternative to AFFF and much of the world has switched to using them.

At the Carroll County Airport,  MDE should test the groundwater and Meadow Branch of Big Pipe Creek which drains the runway and empties into Big Pipe Creek, a major tributary of the Monacacy River. They should be testing the fish as well.Jay Apperson, MDE deputy director of communications, told the Carroll County Times that the “discovery of the PFOA and PFOS levels were part of an MDE initiative to sample public water systems across the state.” Apperson and the state are playing whac-a-mole as these results begin to pop up, rather than whacking all the moles at once. Maryland has still not tested 96% of its public water. They need to get this done, plus all the other things in this article. Apperson said, “MDE is putting a priority on the implementation of a science-based, comprehensive plan for understanding, communicating and managing PFAS risk.”  This sounds great, but these are empty words.
PFAS is not a mystery. We have a very good idea where the PFAS contamination is coming from in Westminster, Hampstead, and across the state. The MDE ought to use colored dots like those above in hundreds of locations across the state and get to work testing various media rather than using big words to talk about it.

The MDE is playing whac-a-mole with PFAS.MDE’s strategy in addressing PFAS contamination is like playing Whac-a-Mole. There’s so much they could do to round up these moles. They should sample soils downwind of incinerators for PFAS. The stuff doesn’t burn. It just floats to the ground in miniscule particles and continues the process of poisoning the soil, groundwater, and surface water all over again. PFAS is used to put out fires so it doesn’t completely burn in most incinerators.

The MDE should google “PTFE manufacturers Maryland” to start looking for manufacturers. PTFE is Polytetrafluoroethylene. The commonly known brand name of PTFE-based formulas is Teflon by Chemours, a spin-off from DuPont, which originally discovered the compound in 1938.  This development is likened to opening Pandora’s box. PTFE is used in all kinds of things, from Teflon tape to plumbing gaskets to wire coating.

The MDE ought to test at all locations in the state that have ever appeared on the Defense Logistics Agency’s Qualified Facilities List.

Of course, the MDE should test the soils, groundwater, surface waters, and aquatic life adjacent to more than 15 military installations that are likely to have used massive amounts of the substances and another 20 that may have long ago. These are, after all, “forever chemicals.” The state should demand access to the bases to test groundwater and surface water. The MDE ought to be testing in the burn pits and in the areas near hangars fitted with overhead suppression systems that routinely tested PFAS foams.

The DOD has not been forthcoming on PFAS use in Maryland and is under no pressure from  the Hogan-Grumbles team to clean up its act, quite a bit different from several states that have sued the DOD over PFAS.

All of the testing called for above will hasten the development of acceptable standards for drinking water, groundwater, and surface water. It’s a good thing because Maryland is behind most of the states in dealing with PFAS. They can copy and paste a lot of regulations from states like: Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Michigan.

The MDE’s track record on defending public health from the ravages of PFAS come into focus in Westminster. The state is dragging its feet, while few are paying attention.

This article was previously published here.

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