Letter: What are implications of tank farm soil contamination?

Posted 1/13/20

Editor’s note: This letter, dated Jan. 7, was addressed to Town Council President Kevin Aguiar and included on the council’s agenda Monday under correspondence. 

To the …

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Letter: What are implications of tank farm soil contamination?


Editor’s note: This letter, dated Jan. 7, was addressed to Town Council President Kevin Aguiar and included on the council’s agenda Monday under correspondence. 

To the editor:

In the spring of 2019, the Navy started remediation of Tank Farm 1 soil for fuel oil contamination. This decision did not go through normal Reuse Advisory Board (RAB) process which reviews the alternatives, takes comments from the public, vets the recommended plans and then issues a record of decision (ROD).

Three months after starting, the Navy abruptly shut down this operation. The reason given was that the low temperature desorption process, chosen so as not to release the known Per/Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the atmosphere, was not economic. 

The viability of that process should have been determined beforehand. Certainly the lack of viability could have been determined in one month, or possibly even one week of operation. Why was this discovered only after operating around the clock for over three months? At the July RAB meeting, two weeks before the project was indefinitely suspended, pictures were shown of substantial dust blowing off the site both day and night. Nearby boat owners and Portsmouth residents had complained about the dust from this operation. Could the dust have been spreading contamination? What is now planned to be done with the stockpiled (contaminated?) soil in large exposed piles still on the site?

(An Oct. 10, 2019) AP-released Los Angeles Times article details PFAS issues at other military installations. PFAS contamination is known to exist at Tank Farm 1 as well as other Portsmouth sites.

According to the CDC, exposure to PFAS can lead to many adverse and life-threatening human health problems. PFAS chemicals are particularly dangerous because they are extremely persistent and build up in the human body over time. The EPA has not yet set standards for PFAS, but classified it as an emerging contaminant. However, there is a current EPA advisory recommendation for less than 70 parts per trillion in groundwater. Many researchers believe this will turn out to be seven to 10 times too high. California has set their regulations to 5.1 parts per trillion.

Although Portsmouth does not use groundwater for its drinking water supply, PFAS could well be leaving into the Bay and into our food supply. Groundwater is also frequently used on this island for irrigation. While ingesting PFAS in food and drinking water is known to be dangerous, it is unclear how fast PFAS is observed through contact with the skin or by breathing. OSHA recommends people working around PFAS wash their hands immediately, even if they have worn latex gloves. 

Since the Navy indefinitely suspended remediation of Tank Farm 1, the council’s West Side Development Advisory Committee (WSDAC) is advocating for a private developer to buy the tank farm property and remediate it. This is because WSDAC believes a private developer will now do it sooner than the Navy. Quickness should not be the objective. Portsmouth should be concentrating on obtaining the most efficient, effective longterm cleanup of PFAS in the area. Trusting a private, limited liability, profit-oriented developer to do this when final standards are not even in place, does not seem well-reasoned.

PFAS is easily transported by water. Therefore, areas near the original contaminated area can often end of contaminated as well, as is stated in the LA Times article. This should be considered if the town or state plans to acquire Burma and/or Stringham roads along with the associate infrastructure and its maintenance. What will be the increased cost of maintenance if workers are found to be operating in contaminated soil, or soil with contaminated groundwater? What might be the cost of future remediation if it is mandated?

As you can see, the presence of this contamination could impact Portsmouth in many ways, and goes well beyond affecting public health and welfare. The Portsmouth Council needs to fully educate themselves about the implications and the impact of PFAS contamination. Then, with input from experts and Portsmouth residents, the council has a duty to take a leadership roll in making sure the right decisions are being made for Portsmouth.

Thomas Grieb

110 Thayer Drive


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