Sewer System at Navy Base in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland sends high levels of PFAS into the Chesapeake Bay

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The storm water drain pipe shown here, carrying water from areas south of the base and located on the beach just south of the Locust Grove subdivision, contained 5 separate PFAS totaling 9.5 ppt., including PFOS at a concentration of 4.4 ppt.
The storm water drain pipe shown here, carrying water from areas south of the base and located on the beach just south of the Locust Grove subdivision, contained 5 separate PFAS totaling 9.5 ppt., including PFOS at a concentration of 4.4 ppt.

The red X shown above is the location of the sewer treatment plant on the naval facility. As the stream travels away from the historic fire training area, PFOS levels predictably decrease, in this case, from 165 nanograms per liter, or parts per trillion, (ppt) to 137 ppt. PFOS levels in the stream, however, jump from 137 ppt to 1,230 ppt  as the stream runs alongside the NRL-CBD sewer treatment plant, before discharging into the Chesapeake Bay about 1,000 feet away.

 The Navy says PFAS compounds on the base are “contained and not being released to the environment.” During the virtual Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting in May, 2021 the Navy responded to a question from the public that asked if PFAS compounds are still being released to the environment through activities on base. The Navy responded, “Current modernized facilities have stopped these releases. These (fire training) operations are conducted in very controlled settings. After tests are conducted, residual aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) product is containerized, and removed from the area for proper disposal.”

The Navy added that PFAS detections in surface water are likely caused by “groundwater to surface water discharge”.

The spike in the stream after it passes by the sewer treatment plant suggests that  PFAS is likely being released into one or more sanitary sewer drains somewhere on base.

The Navy says PFAS concentrations in surface water are above screening levels, which they say is the first step in understanding if a release has occurred on base.  It is possible (although not likely) the PFAS releases of this magnitude originated from farms and residences surrounding the base.

During the RAB meeting the Navy was asked if it is safe for humans to fish and swim in surface waters with PFAS concentrations that exceed the human health screening levels for PFOA and PFOS.

The Navy replied (From the Page 7 of the RAB Minutes):

The human health risk associated with PFAS in environmental media including surface water is a key concept that DoD and the regulatory bodies are working though to understand as PFAS sites move into the remedial investigation (RI) phase. One important step moving forward into the RI will be to refine the conceptual site model to evaluate whether the streams on-site have the exposure pathways (fishing, swimming) mentioned in the comment.

The Navy is trying to understand if a release has occurred – and if it has, whether it constitutes a pathway to human exposure. That’s how far along we are in the remediation process. Sadly, the Navy’s record in the Chesapeake Beach area is very much the same in and around naval institutions worldwide.

Per- and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in firefighting testing at the NRL-CBD since 1968, longer than anywhere, while the Navy has known these chemicals are harmful since 1974.

The Navy claims residual AFFF containing PFAS are containerized and removed from the area for proper disposal, however, there is no method known to properly dispose of these chemicals. Scientists around the world are working on this problem and they’ve sounded a warning that we must immediately cease using PFAS in firefighting foams and other applications because it doesn’t break down, it makes us sick, and it bioaccumulates in our bodies.

Much of the world has ceased using firefighting foams that use PFAS to extinguish super-hot petroleum fires. Many countries make policies that are protective of human health. Here, we put faux national security concerns ahead of health concerns. This explains why the US government has claimed “sovereign immunity” in US District Court Cases brought by states for damages arising from the military’s use of the deadly foams.

Several extraordinarily capable fluorine-free foams have been developed, although the military is adamant about sticking with the PFAS foams it has been using for 53 years.  Every bit of the Perfluoro-octane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and Perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) the Navy began using in Chesapeake Beach in 1968 is still with us. Even when humans go to the bathroom, urine and feces containing PFAS  return to a wastewater treatment facility that send them off into waters or fields to be consumed by humans again. Interestingly, studies have shown that longer chain length PFAS (like the PFOS and PFOA in Chesapeake Beach) tend to have longer renal elimination half-lives which means that they stay in our bodies for a long time, wreaking havoc, causing cancer and fetal abnormalities in the lowest concentrations.

The Sewer Plants

The small treatment plant on base is east of Bayside Road and north of the Locust Grove community. It produces about  10 wet tons/year of sludge which is dried in open air sludge beds. This process may also contribute to PFAS leaching into groundwater and surface water.  The poisonous sludge is shipped to the Solomons Wastewater Treatment Plant Sludge Receiving Station.

The Town of Chesapeake Beach reported that wastewater effluent collected in June from the town’s sewer treatment plant contained 506.9 ppt of PFAS. The chemicals are routinely discharged into the bay. It is common practice for municipalities to send otherwise treated wastewater into adjacent surface waters.  

Although not required by sleepy Maryland authorities, the town immediately tested drinking water, sewer water, fish, and oysters after being informed of the high levels of contamination on base. The drinking water wells were found not to contain PFAS, a finding confirmed by testing of private wells performed by Military Poisons in Summer City and the Locust Grove area. The sewer water, oysters, and fish were all found to be contaminated.

The storm water drain pipe shown here, carrying water from areas south of the base and located on the beach just south of the Locust Grove subdivision, contained 5 separate PFAS totaling 9.5 ppt., including PFOS at a concentration of 4.4 ppt.

Environmentalists warn that PFOS levels above 2 ppt in surface waters threaten human health because they begin the process of bioaccumulation in fish.

Neither the EPA nor the state of Maryland regulate PFAS leaving wastewater treatment plants.  The Maryland Department of the Environment recently issued a discharge permit that is the first of its kind in Maryland to require monitoring for PFAS in effluent at the Naval Support Facility Indian Head. The base is suspected of contaminating Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac River with PFAS, although the Navy has not released specific levels of contamination there.

The Patuxent River Naval Air Station recently released 2,500 gallons of AFFF with extraordinarily high levels of PFAS into the Marlay-Taylor Wastewater Reclamation Facility operated by the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission. The facility discharged the chemicals two miles into the middle of the bay near popular fishing grounds.

Unlike many areas surrounding contaminated naval installations, the greater Chesapeake Beach community has been largely silent regarding the PFAS contamination at NRL-CBD, judging from the lack of public concern reported in the local media.

For instance, the Town of Chesapeake Beach recently found a perch caught close to the NRL-CBD contained nearly 10,000 ppt of various PFAS chemicals while public health officials warn against consuming more that 1 ppt of the toxins in drinking water. The local and regional media failed to highlight the findings.

A landowner asked during the RAB meeting if it is safe for his family to be using a contaminated stream for animals and irrigation.  The Navy replied,  “At this time, there are no established federal standards for PFAS in groundwater, livestock, food commodities, and drinking water, or known federal restrictions for the sale of agricultural products that have been irrigated or watered with water containing PFAS.”

In various locations throughout the country, milk, meat, fruit and vegetables produced on lands near releases of PFAS have shown high levels of the chemicals.

For its part, the Maryland Department of Health has not issued warnings regarding the consumption of agricultural products or seafood with high levels of PFAS, citing the same reasons the Navy has cited.

Groundwater

The Navy has reported high levels of PFAS in groundwater totaling 241,000 ppt near the burn site. The Navy is emphasizing that the migration of PFAS in groundwater is generally heading east toward the bay, although it appears the contamination is moving in all directions from the Fire Training Area.

PFAS has been detected in shallow wells along the western perimeter of the base while there has been no testing conducted for homes in the western reaches of Summer City or neighborhoods west of Dalrymple Road, along Bayside Road, Brookeside Dr, Dory Brooks Road, and Karen Drive. PFAS contamination in the subsoil was reported at more than 8 million parts per trillion and is thought to be among the highest levels worldwide. The epicenter of the contamination is located about 1,200 feet east of the intersection of Dalrymple Road and Bayside Road. The bulk of the contamination is in the form of PFOS which is known to be capable of spreading 20 miles in subterranean aquifers.  

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