Water quality at Delaware Guard site called into question

Water quality at Delaware Guard site called into question


Artesian thinks base pollutants have seeped into Airport Park wellfield

By JEFF MONTGOMERY • The News Journal • November 14, 2010

Delaware environmental officials have widened an investigation into the spread of chemical pollutants under New Castle Airport, after the state’s largest private water supplier expressed fears that the pollution has contaminated two public supply wells near Hares Corner.
Joseph A. DiNunzio, senior vice president with Artesian Resources, said the Defense Department has not adequately addressed groundwater con- tamination at the Delaware Air National Guard site near New Castle.

Artesian believes fuel and solvent compounds from spills as long ago as the 1940s have seeped underground from the base to Artesian’s Airport Industrial Park wellfield southwest of U.S. 13 and Frenchtown Road.

“Our customers have borne these costs,” DiNunzio said. “If there are responsible parties and the documentation is clear – and that work needs to be completed, in this case – the responsible parties owe our customers all that they have paid all these years.”

The utility’s airport-area wells feed into a system that supplies 200,000 people through 70,000 residential connections across northern New Castle County, about a third of the county’s population.

Responding to protests from Artesian, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control officials ordered the Defense Department to install new wells to test groundwater near Artesian’s Industrial Park wellfield.

Since the late 1940s, repeated chemical spills have fouled soil and groundwater under the Guard base, reaching into the earth from slowly leaking underground tanks, aircraft washdowns, solvent drum tipovers, pipeline breaks and fuel overflows, ranging from a few hundred gallons to 10,000 gallons in a single incident.

The airbase pollution is the latest development in a slowly unfolding picture of hundreds of pollution sites that have damaged or threatened groundwater resources throughout Delaware. Depending on the region, those resources supply a minimum of 30 percent – and as much as 100 percent – of the drinking water to homes and businesses.
Earlier this year, the Markell administration stepped up efforts to inform the public about water quality, groundwater and pollution. The move followed reports by The News Journal about threats to some of the state’s deepest aquifers and most important drinking-water supplies.
“It’s hard for a lot of people to understand what the numbers mean, and what is or isn’t a threat,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark South. “I think we have an obligation to people. We have a high cancer rate, and it’s not all lifestyle or air pollution.”

Concern about the safety of Delaware’s drinking water has grown since environmental regulators disclosed that toxic chemicals are seeping into deeper aquifers used for public supplies, including the Potomac aquifer in northern New Castle County. The vast and complex groundwater formation spreads unevenly across parts of several states and serves as an important source of public drinking water in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia.

State officials say public supplies are constantly monitored, yet threats have persisted and, in some cases, worsened, including the pollution under the New Castle Airport.

Llangollen Green resident Keith Steed said that he had only sketchy information about groundwater risks near Artesian wells, less than a half-mile from his home, and those at the airport.

“I’m familiar with it to a degree, but I’m not as knowledgeable as I should be. They should be looking into it if they think something at the airport caused a problem,” Steed said. “We already drink bottled water here, mostly, instead of tap water – we buy it by the case.”

The Division of Public Health is tightening its oversight of public water systems of all sizes. Notification of drinking-water standard violations have more than tripled this year compared with 2008 and 2009, and regulators are putting new federal rules into force to protect consumers from treatment byproducts, corroding pipes and polluted wells.

Office of Drinking Water manager Edward Hallock said the state also recently ordered 17 small public systems to catch up with overdue, federally mandated annual reports to customers on drinking-water quality and summaries of contamination tests. Most are in smaller mobile-home communities.
“Part of it is, we’re looking closer,” Hallock said. “We’ve had staff on board long enough now that they’re familiar with the routine, and we’ve had time to review the compliance rates of the systems.”

Past pollution still an issue
Millions a year are spent on privately and publicly financed investigations aimed at finding, predicting and controlling the movements of toxic pollutants in aquifers across the state, from Newark, Wilmington and Delaware City to Millsboro and Seaford. Whole tracts that once provided drinking water have been declared unsafe for decades to come.

North of Delaware City, federal officials recently announced plans to spend more than $18 million to seal over pollution that has badly contaminated groundwater in just one spot at the former Metachem Products chemical plant.

Long ranked as a federal Superfund cleanup site, the bankrupt and abandoned plant already has cost taxpayers more than $100 million. The plant was once a global source of ingredients for herbicides, pesticides and the banned Vietnam War defoliant called Agent Orange. Spills, leaks and illegal operations throughout the years have fouled shallow and deep aquifers to a depth of 150 feet, with the full extent of the threat still unknown.

At least one plume of chemicals has moved deep into the Potomac aquifer, contradicting decades of claims by the plant’s owners that the damage was shallow and contained.

The capping work will cover about 18 acres with concrete or asphalt material, with collection wells used to capture and treat high concentrations of benzene and long-lived, highly toxic chlorinated benzene chemicals. Shallow soils targeted for capping also are tainted with dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Long-term cleanup costs at the Delaware Air National Guard site were estimated at $11 million recently, without taking into account new expenses for monitoring threats to Artesian’s Airport Industrial Park wells.

Last month, Artesian told DNREC that it had matched chemicals and residues in its Airport-area wells with chemicals from the Guard site, previously operated by the Army Air Corps and Air Force.
Bruce P. Kraeuter, an Artesian senior vice president, said the company had been forced to filter the wells for years, “at significant expense” without knowing the source of the pollution. The company says the filters reliably keep well water within federal requirements, although similar contamination problems at other Artesian wells on the north end of the base have led to frequent shutdowns as a cost-saving measure.

Contaminants caught by the airport-area filters include trichloroethylene, a widely used, toxic degreaser, and related chemicals that trickled more than 100 feet down into deep Potomac aquifer waters tapped by Artesian’s wells.

Though some of the pollution is recent, other problems have more distant origins.

In 1998, environmental consultants reported that more than 43,000 gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products – enough to fill about seven tanker trucks – had pooled in one area under an aircraft parking apron, all from unknown or undocumented sources.

In 2006, a federal consultant noted pollution in soils across a wide area used for cleaning and demobilizing thousands of returning aircraft in the mid- and late-1940s.

“Artesian believes we have become the de facto remedial treatment operation for the [air base] contamination that originated as long ago as post-World War II,” Kraeuter wrote.

Artesian has argued that current cleanup plans are inadequate because they are based on the assumption that pollution had not spread from beneath the airfield. DNREC, the company said, should require new shallow and deep wells between the Guard base and public wells as part of any cleanup plan.

Kathleen Stiller, site investigation and restoration branch manager for DNREC, confirmed Friday that state officials will require the Defense Department to install the additional wells between the airport and Artesian’s wells.

“As we continue to find [groundwater contamination], then we’ll be looking to the Guard to do more work,” Stiller said.

Cleanup investigators have not yet selected locations for the new wells, Stiller said.
The monitoring wells would help find and measure contamination outside the fenceline and allow forecasts of future movements.

“Artesian recognizes that we are not the only impacted source of supply in this area. DNREC should also recognize this fact,” Kraeuter said.
Cleanup takes guesswork

Several other public water suppliers tap groundwater in the vicinity, including two shallower wells to the north that are part of Artesian’s Castle Hills system and a more-distant Collins Park well, known to have low levels of the same contaminant leaking from the former ICI Americas site near I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

ICI, now owned by Croda, makes chemicals used in the pharmaceutical and food industries. Past operations there leaked carcinogenic benzene, bis (2) chloroethyl ether (BCEE) and other chemicals into shallow and deep aquifers in a large area around the plant.

BCEE, a manufacturing solvent and pesticide ingredient, has been found to cause growth-rate and nervous-system problems in animal studies.

“My understanding is that there may be some private wells in the area that people have taken a look at, and if you got to the east of us, you have the City of New Castle system,” Di- Nunzio said.

DiNunzio said he was unable to provide costs for installation and operation of well filters near the airport.

“Regardless of the exact amount, it’s the principle that the responsible parties should be the ones to pay,” DiNunzio said.

In June 2004, the City of Monterey Park in California approved a 7.5 percent surcharge to install carbon filters on its 13,000-customer system, less than a quarter of the size of Artesian’s northern Delaware operation. Construction and treatment operations cost the utility nearly $2 million a year.

Lenny Siegel, who has tracked groundwater threats and plumes around the nation as director of California-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight, said many communities continue to track down groundwater threats even after proving that treatment can minimize health risks at the tap.
“Laws in many states, including California, say protect any water, even if people aren’t drinking it,” Siegel said. “It’s called anti-degradation.”

Even that firm-sounding policy has exceptions. Although federal and state agencies have widely adopted anti-degradation, exceptions are made when remedial costs are too high. Delaware’s landscape is pocked with areas of land that have been sealed over to allow long-term breakdown of pollution, rather than aggressive removal.

Siegel said treatment costs can rise unpredictably as unchecked contamination spreads or accumulates.

“You don’t know how long you’re going to need to treat it, yet there are places where that’s the solution,” Siegel said.

Other problems can follow, he added, including releases of hazardous vapors from contaminated soil and groundwater. In New York City, where all groundwater has been off limits for years, “they don’t know where the plumes are,” a fact that has allowed vapors from dry-cleaning plant spills to drift into school classrooms.

DNREC has faced the same vapor intrusion risk in all three Delaware counties, including under homes and buildings near the historic Green in Dover.

Siegel said he is participating in a national-level review of the effectiveness of groundwater pollution controls in areas where vapors are a problem.

Final decisions on cleanup often involve guesswork, he added, since pollution investigations are often based on estimated plume locations developed from a limited number of test well sites. Those hazy boundaries often become a point of contention when pollution shows up in distant wells without a clear connection to a source and when regulators are deciding how far cleanups have to extend.

“The Air Force will often argue that the point of compliance is a base boundary,” Siegel said. “As long as we keep contamination on the base, we don’t have to worry about it.”
Toxic sites in each county

For years, government officials and experts insisted that the Potomac’s upper layers were sealed over by seams of impermeable clay that protected deep groundwater from pollution in more-shallow, unsealed aquifers.
n a series of stories earlier this year, The News Journal reported how that assumption repeatedly has been proved false, most recently at another big Artesian wellfield near Llangollen Boulevard. Consultants for a group of former landfill owners and companies that dumped chemicals there acknowledged this month that prehistoric rivers had carved deep cuts between aquifers under what would become the Delaware Sand & Gravel landfill, one of the state’s most toxic dump sites.

Environmental Protection Agency officials earlier this year ordered the landfill’s owners to develop a new plan to control pollution from Delaware Sand & Gravel and recently acknowledged that pollution would persist in Artesian’s Llangollen Lane wells for years, even after workers cut off the source.

At the Delaware City Refinery, DNREC is reviewing updated results of sampling from hundreds of nearby wells. Benzene, naphtha and other compounds have sunk into Potomac water 190 feet down and are trickling up from the bottom of Dragon Run Creek.

Donald Satterfield, an Artesian customer who lives near the Delaware Sand & Gravel site, said customers count on regulators and utilities to protect them.

“That’s their problem. We’re paying them to take care of it,” Satterfield said. “I don’t have any problem with our water. We’re paying them to bring it to us, and I don’t want any bad water coming into my house.”

Kowalko is worried about the former Chrysler assembly plant in Newark, now undergoing environmental studies as part of a conversion into a University of Delaware research and education center. Some contaminants have been found in shallow groundwater under the plant, DNREC records show, although the extent of pollution is limited.

In central Kent County, state and federal officials have barred use of shallow aquifers for public use on and around Dover Air Force base, after decades of military and civilian spills at more than 20 locations. The base covers nearly 4,000 acres, and hundreds of acres adjacent to the operation also are under water-use restrictions.
In Bethel, south of Seaford, DNREC and the EPA are investigating conditions around a metal plating business that handles “highly toxic” acid baths and metals. Federal officials issued the company, Procino Plating, a notice of violation in 2008, and state regulators last month concluded that the operation “has a potential to impact soil, surface water and groundwater.”

Sussex County’s soils are especially vulnerable to spills. DNREC officials are now working to track down contaminants that have fouled a well in nearby Seaford, and the EPA agreed to take over an estimated $10 million cleanup of industrial solvents that ruined a public well in Millsboro. That incident led to a weeks-long warning against drinking water from a system that served thousands of residents.

“Groundwater contamination is a very serious thing,” Kowalko said. “You usually don’t notice it on the surface. You can’t test for it in the air. You have to sample and drill, and in a way, you may have to be lucky just to locate a problem. When you find it, it has to be addressed totally in an open way, before it spreads.”