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Air Force investigating Martinsburg water tainting

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The 167th Airlift Wing, as well as the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, are investigating whether any activities at the base in Martinsburg may have contributed to contamination of the city’s water supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory on May 19 for two chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perflourooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which established new limits on the chemicals in drinking water. The limits for PFOA and PFOS had been 0.4 parts per billion prior to last week’s EPA advisory, and the advisory reduced the maximum limit to 0.07 parts per billion.

The change put Martinsburg’s Big Springs Water Filtration Plant off Winchester Avenue in violation, since the water there tested at 0.124 parts per billion in late March. The plant was closed May 19 and hasn’t reopen.

According to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, PFOA and PFOS are found in Aqueous Film Forming Foam, a firefighting agent used to extinguish petroleum fires.

The 167th Airlift Wing, which Martinsburg water and sewer director Steve Knipe said is within the source area for the Big Springs plant, has used Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) in the past, which could have contributed to the contamination.

Col. Shaun Perkowski, wing commander of the 167th Airlift Wing, said the Air Force is working with a number of bases across the country to identify areas where AFFF may have been used.

“The Air Force historically has been using AFFF since 1970 for emergency response for fires. It has the ability to basically take the oxygen out of a fuel-fed fire on the runway. We trained with it until 2008, and then they started to look at the numbers and started to pull it out of training circulation,” Perkowski said.

Perkowski said the Air Force is working to phase out AFFF and replace it with a new firefighting agent at air bases nationwide. He said the switch from AFFF to the new substance will take place over the next few years and will cost $25 million.

Right now, Perkowski said, there is a small quantity of AFFF at the 167th Airlift Wing for use in emergencies only. He said the last time AFFF was used there was in September 2011, when a crash occurred at the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Airshow.

The Air Force is doing a site survey, looking at the base, its history and interviewing people to determine where and when AFFF may have been used, either in emergencies or training, Perkowski said.

“The Air Force identified 13 sites on the base and then they identified 10 more sites for further investigation,” he said. “When they came in, they did not do any testing. They just came to find out where AFFF was possibly used.”

Perkowski said the Air Force will award a contract for further investigation of AFFF that will include soil and groundwater sampling in July. After that, Perkowski said, the Air Force will return to the 167th base for testing.

While AFFF is known to contain PFOA and PFOS, Perkowski said no direct link to the past use of AFFF at the 167th Airlift Wing and the contamination of the water at the Big Springs Water Filtration Plant has been identified.

“There are other materials that have PFOA and PFOS in them. I’m a pilot, I’m the commander here, but I can’t draw a straight line from our use in the past of this authorized material to what’s going on here with the water in Martinsburg,” Perkowski said. “The Air Force is on top of it, they’re looking into it and they’re prepared to answer questions.”

Perkowski said the EPA advisory issued last week came as a surprise to him, too. He said the morning of the day the advisory was issued, he met with the base’s Environmental Safety Occupational Health (ESOH) Council, a group that reviews OSHA and environmental regulations and ensures the base is in compliance. Perkowski said the topic of PFOA, PFOS and the EPA’s advisory did not come up in the ESOH meeting since the EPA had not issued the advisory yet and at the time, the base was in compliance with the EPA’s standards.

“We are a community partner and we will continue to work with the Airport Authority and the local government, whether it’s Berkeley County or the city of Martinsburg,” Perkowski said. “We’ve been in contact with those individuals, and we are very proactive about our partnerships in the community.”

Mayor George Karos said the city’s water, which is being sourced from the Kilmer Springs Water Filtration Plant due to the closure of the Big Springs facility, is safe for drinking. City officials will continue to work with agencies such as the EPA, the West Virginia Department of Heath and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to locate the source of the chemical contaminants.

Staff writer Mary Stortstrom can be reached at 304-725-6581 or twitter.com/mstortstromJN.

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