Navy official: ‘Probably’ no more removal of PFAS-contaminated soil

Navy official: ‘Probably’ no more removal of PFAS-contaminated soil

Source: https://www.burlingtoncountytimes.com, June 6, 2019
By: Kyle Bagenstose

A Navy official said last week that after a “proactive” initiative to remove 3,500 tons of contaminated soil went awry, the department likely won’t be trying it again anytime soon.

An official in charge of closed Naval facilities on the East Coast said at a meeting last week he had “learned my lesson” not to remove any more soil contaminated by firefighting chemicals at the bases.

The statement came during a quarterly meeting on environmental cleanup efforts at the former Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Horsham. The meetings have recently been dominated by discussion of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are toxic chemicals that were used for decades in firefighting foams and have now contaminated area water supplies.

A key issue has been the lack of federal or state regulations for the chemicals, leading to a great deal of uncertainty as to how quickly, and to what extent, the chemicals need to be cleaned from the environment.

The Navy took what it called a “proactive step” last year to remove about 3,500 tons of the base’s most highly contaminated soil, figuring it could help stop the migration of PFAS chemicals into area waterways and drinking water supplies. Officials initially suggested the soil might be disposed of in a Berks County landfill, but NJ Spotlight first reported in January that a landfill in Cumberland County, New Jersey, had agreed to take the material.

Following that report, New Jersey environmental groups and residents raised concerns. The landfill, operated by the Cumberland County Improvement Authority, then reversed its decision to accept the fill.

“The dirt is not going to be delivered to the landfill,” authority president Gerard Velazquez III said earlier this year, declining to elaborate on why. “We made a decision at the Improvement Authority that was in the best interest of the authority and the best interest of Cumberland County.”

Since then, the soil has remained in a pile on the Willow Grove base. Officials said at the meeting last week it is encased on all sides by an impermeable material, which additionally sits atop a concrete pad. But Gregory Preston, director of the Navy’s Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission’s Program Management Office East, said the Navy “can’t find anybody to take the soil.”

He added the effort was well-intentioned but given the difficulties, is not likely to be repeated.

“What the Navy started to do was a good idea to try and be helpful. Turned out to become unideal,” Preston said, adding it would probably be the last time they would try it. “Being proactive may not be the best thing at this point in time.”

Gregory Nesbitt, president of Horsham Council, pushed back on Preston’s statements, asking how such a position would work in the long term if the Navy intends to clean up the base.

“There is no requirement to take the soil out,” Preston replied. “There are no limits, there are no regulations.”

Nesbitt said he hoped the Environmental Protection Agency would add the chemicals to a list of hazardous substances, which creates cleanup requirements for the chemicals.

An EPA official at the meeting later reiterated the agency is working on a potential hazardous substances listing, with a proposal potentially coming by the end of the year. However, details on that effort remain scarce and environmental advocates have previously been skeptical the EPA will work quickly and comprehensively to address the issue.

Asked by a resident why the New Jersey landfill declined to take the soil, Preston said he wasn’t sure but believed it was due to media reports.

“My personal belief?” Preston said. “Local news coverage looked at it and frankly scared … the owner of the landfill into not wanting to get involved in that matter.”

Kathy Setian, a former EPA Superfund project manager in California, said earlier this year she thinks it’s wise to look ahead and begin disposing of PFAS in a manner that assumes the chemicals will at some point be regulated.

“As a practical manner, if I was the (regional EPA manager) and I knew that this was on the horizon, I would certainly want to make sure that I wasn’t creating a new Superfund site,” while disposing of the chemicals, Setian said.

Preston said at last week’s meeting that the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection had signed off on the landfill disposal.

Adam Sowatzka, an attorney with the Atlanta-based firm King & Spalding and a former EPA lawyer, said PFAS disposal has the potential to become an extremely complicated matter around the country, particularly if the chemicals do become regulated and create liability issues.

“Where does the liability chain stop?” Sowatzka said. “I don’t think people have fully thought through the implications of everything.”

Sowatzka noted its often municipalities or counties that handle sewage sludges, which they then sell to farmers.

“Think about the unintended consequences … If every municipality in the country said we can no longer take the risk of spreading biosolids onto farm fields,” Sowatzka said. “And now the cost of doing so is going to get passed onto the consumer because we’re going to have to landfill it.”

But as shown in the recent case, Sowatzka said there’s also the possibility the waste industry and landfills won’t want to take PFAS-laden materials either.

“Are (they) going to take it? I don’t know,” Sowatzka said.

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