ATLANTA — Groundwater near Georgia military bases remains contaminated from a toxic firefighting foam used for decades by the U.S. Air Force, prompting fears among residents about their exposure to the chemicals.
Recent tests at Georgia's three air bases show extensive environmental contamination of groundwater, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Environmentalists say that contamination from the foam exposed Georgia communities to chemicals linked to cancer and a variety of other health problems.
The Air Force has said that Georgia's drinking water is safe for the thousands of people living around its installations.
But experts and nearby residents question those findings, saying the military's review was too narrow and failed to test water off-base.
"Given that there are concentrations of these compounds on site, over time they're going to move off of the site. That's just common sense," said Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University. "No contaminant obeys property lines."
Nationwide, the Air Force has acknowledged contaminating drinking water in communities close to its bases in more than a dozen other states.
In Georgia, Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Cobb County, Robins Air Force Base in Houston County and Moody Air Force Base in Lowndes County used the firefighting foam in training exercises and to put out fires when planes crashed.
The foam also sometimes leaked out of its storage tanks, the Journal-Constitution reported. Thousands of gallons of foam soaked into the ground or washed into creeks and wetlands, killing fish and imperiling those who use the affected waterways for fishing, swimming and boating, the newspaper reported.
The contamination, which is linked to a class of chemicals known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, was laid out in a series of site inspection reports completed by the Air Force last year.
Those reports concluded that despite high levels of groundwater pollution, there was no immediate risk to human health through contamination of drinking water.
That claim was met with skepticism, particularly in rural areas where many people rely on wells for drinking and irrigation.
"Everything in this area depends on groundwater," said John Quarterman, the Suwannee Riverkeeper in Lowndes County, where Moody is located.
In a statement, the Air Force said its response is constrained by a lack of regulation for PFAS chemicals. The two that are the focus of most testing are known as PFOS and PFOA.
"Because PFOS/PFOA are unregulated and Georgia or federal entities have not established standards for non-drinking water sources, we cannot expend government resources on those water sources," the Air Force said.
Moody Air Force Base in south Georgia recorded the highest levels of groundwater contamination out of the three Georgia installations — more than 5,000 times the screening level.
The base, which started as a flight training facility during World War II, sits 14 miles (23 kilometers) northeast of Valdosta. It's bisected by Beatty Branch creek, which ultimately flows into the Withlacoochee River. Surface water from the base runs south into Grand Bay Swamp, a protected wildlife refuge and the state's second largest blackwater wetland after the Okefenokee Swamp, home to fish, alligators and migrating birds.
Tests of Moody's drinking wells showed no reportable contamination. In a news release published last May, the base celebrated the fact that its drinking water had been deemed safe, emphasizing that its wells plunge down more than 400 feet into a protected aquifer.
But local residents say their wells don't go nearly as deep, and the Lowndes County public water system has not been tested for the chemicals.
"I'm very concerned, because I live practically adjacent to the base," said Debra Tann.
Tann, an educator married to a retired Navy veteran with family ties to the area, lives less than a mile from Moody. Her well only goes down 230 feet (70 meters), which could make it more vulnerable to contamination.
Tann added that her husband often fishes from local creeks and rivers that could have been polluted with cancer-causing chemicals.
In response to questions, a spokesperson for the Air Force wrote that "since results showed no drinking water impacts on base and indicated there was not a pathway or proximity to off-base drinking water supplies, we did not sample outside the installations."
Site inspections of Dobbins and Robins also found groundwater contamination and pollution of creeks that flow from the bases into the Chattahoochee and Ocmulgee Rivers.
But, as was the case at Moody, the Air Force said it was only authorized to address drinking water, and it did not detect contamination in its own drinking water. Therefore, it did not test any water off-base.