But what it means for potential polluters, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, remains to be seen.
New Jersey implemented the nation’s strictest groundwater limits for a pair of emerging toxic chemicals last week, when its Department of Environmental Protection published interim standards for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
The chemicals, which are the most well-known family members in a class of chemicals collectively referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), were used for decades in products ranging from Teflon pans to stain-resistant clothing to firefighting foams. More recently, they’ve been linked to a variety of health effects including ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, reproductive and developmental issues, and some cancers.
But the chemicals remain largely unregulated at the federal level, prompting an increasing number of states to create their own PFAS standards. New Jersey has been a leading state, last year creating a 14 parts per trillion (ppt) drinking water standard for chemical cousin PFNA, and declaring earlier this year it anticipates creating a similar 14-ppt standard for PFOA and a 13-ppt standard for PFOS.
It’s the latter two efforts that led to the creation last week of interim groundwater standards. Under New Jersey law, a drinking water standard automatically becomes a groundwater standard once published. But through a quirk of the statutes, the state also adopts interim groundwater standards prior to the drinking water levels being finalized, and rounds them to the nearest significant number.
That means the interim groundwater standards created are rounded down to just 10 ppt for both PFOA and PFOS. The chemicals are regulated separately, meaning groundwater could have 9 ppt of each chemical and still comply with the law.
The implementation of the revised standards was applauded by the environmental nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has advocated for the regulation and clean up of PFAS contamination hotspots in New Jersey for more than a decade. Tracy Carluccio, the group’s deputy director, added they had argued for even lower standards of about 5 ppt.
“While the criteria adopted is not as protective as DRN proposed, these are now the strictest in the nation and reflect leadership action taken by NJDEP that is of great importance in the effort to remove these chemicals from our environment and drinking water sources,” Carluccio said.
Carluccio added that she believes the new criteria will “require” groundwater cleanup where the standards are exceeded. New Jersey DEP spokesman Larry Hajna also confirmed the new criteria are “enforceable remediation standards.”
That will likely be significant at areas of contamination such as the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which is investigating widespread PFAS contamination from the use of firefighting foams. The Joint Base began investigating the presence of PFAS in 2015, and has since identified environmental hot spots in 21 locations, according to base records.
Over the past several years the military also has sampled hundreds of private and public drinking water wells on and and around the base, last publicly announcing that PFOS and PFOA were found in three private wells above a 70 ppt health advisory limit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals were also found above that level in two on-base water supply wells plugged into a system serving about 3,000 people on the Lakehurst portion of the base. Those wells were the subject of some controversy, with military officials claiming they were backup wells but an investigation by this news organization finding they actually supplied about 57 million gallons of potable water over the prior decade.
According to Hajna, the NJDEP expects the new 10 ppt groundwater standards to apply to private drinking water wells, including around the Joint Base.
“This criteria also applies to private wells as well as groundwater. Joint Base will be requested to evaluate and provide treatment to any private wells above (the standard),” Hajna wrote in an email. “If they do not DEP will provide treatment.”
Hajna added the Joint Base is also expected to identify areas where groundwater exceeds the 10 ppt interim standards, as it continues its environmental investigation at the base.
Whether the Joint Base will comply remains to be seen. Questions sent to the Air Force’s public affairs team on March 14 were unanswered as of early Tuesday afternoon. They included whether the base would comply with the NJDEP’s requirements, how many of the previously sampled wells eclipsed 10 ppt, and whether the new standards will have any other impacts.
In Michigan, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality previously created a 12-ppt standard for PFOS at points where groundwater enters into surface water. The state last year issued a violation to the former Wurthsmith Air Force Base for violating the standard, but the Air Force replied that it did not intend to comply.
The matter also has implications for public water suppliers. At the January meeting where the NJDEP signaled it would set PFOS and PFOA drinking water standards, a representative of the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority noted the chemicals were detected in the city’s drinking water at 26 ppt for PFOS and 13 ppt for PFOA. The system’s water wells are located on a nearby federal property primarily administered by the Federal Aviation Administration. Atlantic City estimates it will cost $22 million to install filtration, and its representative expressed concern the federal government would not reimburse the city.
“How do I pass that onto my ratepayers, for something that has for the longest time, been a debate between the federal government and the state government?” water plant manager Anthony Palombi said. “We cannot get funded.”
An NJDEP official at the meeting said that the agency believes the federal government will have to comply with permanent standards, and had reached out to the regional EPA office for back up that the interim standards would also need to be met.
Hajna said last week that the NJDEP has yet to hear back from the EPA on the request.
Bruce Ward, executive director of the Atlantic City authority, declined to answer questions Tuesday. However, he forwarded a press release that stated he “asserts these costs cannot be borne by the city’s ratepayers and that responsible parties must be held accountable.”
He also forwarded an article from The Press of Atlantic City that stated the city would pursue a lawsuit against chemical manufacturers DuPont and 3M, review an agreement with the FAA to assess potential liability, and consider the relocation of its wells. The article added the NJDEP was also assisting “to identify funding and additional options.”