Toxic chemicals in wells along South Bay Road: City manager says Air Force should foot the bill to connect city water to this area.

Residents in the properties from 1140 to 1290 South Bay Road, northwest of Dover Air Force Base, can now be connected to city water without property annexation. Approval from the Utility Committee came Tuesday, Oct. 29.

Typically, properties must be annexed if they want access to utilities. Public works director Sharon Duca said this case is different because wells have been contaminated outside the property owners’ control. The area includes a shopping center with five businesses, two residences and an office building, although when asked, the Air Force and DNREC both refused to identify the specific parcels.

In July, Dover Air Force Base identified four off-base wells along Bay Road with water containing PFAS compounds, Perfluorooctanesulfonic and Perfluorooctanoic acids, above Environmental Protection Agency lifetime health advisory levels. Dover’s municipal water has not tested positive for these chemicals, Duca said.

The chemicals in the groundwater, found in many locations around the country, came from firefighting foam. They can cause health effects: cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

Since notifying residents face-to-face in July, the Air Force has been providing bottled water to the affected area on Bay Road. Next, they will install water filtration systems “to provide a more efficient and convenient method to achieve clean drinking water,” said Tech. Sgt. Chuck Broadway, a spokesman for the Dover Air Force Base public affairs office. They expect to finish that project by the end of the year, he said.

Another PFAS-contaminated area extends east from New Castle County Airport along Route 13/40. More than 100 military bases across the country have reported PFAS contamination.

What’s next for Dover?

The committee approved the annexation waiver unanimously.

“It is beholden on us to assist them in making sure that our neighbors are not having a problem with their water,” councilman Fred A. Neil said. He then asked city manager Donna Mitchell why the city has not invited the area to come into the city limits.

Mitchell explained that adding this area to the city would be difficult since the residents do not have access to city sewer, part of a normal annexation.

She said by taking away the annexation requirement, the city is simply making way for the Air Force Base to take over the project.

“I think the base needs to take responsibility,” Mitchell said. “I do think it is a public health issue, but I don’t think our ratepayers should bear the cost of this project that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for … the base.”

Who’s going to pay?

The water main is on the east side of Bay Road and pipes need to be routed to the west side by going under the highway. The cost of directing water under a highway falls in the ballpark of $80,000 to $140,000, assistant public works director Jason Lyon said.

Then, the water line would need to run down the road at a cost of $200-$400 per linear foot, Lyon said. These are general estimates since the city does not have any designs for this specific project.

In a Sept. 26 letter to the city manager, Lt. Col. Vhance V. Valencia said the base was reviewing whether they could design and pay for the lines.

Mayor Robin Christiansen agreed with the city manager that the Air Force should pay.

“In other instances where this has happened across the country, the federal government picks up the entire tab. So, I don’t think our taxpayers will be affected,” he said.

Sen. Tom Carper, top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, places responsibility on the Department of Defense.

“If the Department of Defense contaminated the drinking water in and near Dover Air Force Base, it is the responsibility of the Department of Defense to clean up that contamination,” Carper said.

“Across the country, an increasing number of communities, many near military installations, are unfairly footing the bill or anxiously awaiting for someone to clean up the PFAS contamination in their drinking water. Simply put, that’s unfair, and that’s why it’s been one of my top priorities this year to make sure Congress ensures communities like Dover get the relief they need and peace of mind they deserve when unsafe levels of PFAS are detected,” he said.

With Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester and Sen. Chris Coons, Carper urged the Department of Defense to address the contamination at Dover Air Force Base in a July 31 letter.

Carper authored and introduced several provisions to address PFAS contamination in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020, which is currently in the Senate.

He was part of a bipartisan group of legislators who introduced the PFAS Action Plan of 2019 bill, which requires polluters to fix contamination.

What is the base doing now?

In 2016, the base switched the foam in their emergency vehicles for a different fire-fighting foam that is PFOS-free and contains trace amounts of PFOA, Broadway said. In 2017 and 2018, they put it in fire suppression systems in their two hangars.

The new foam meets the military specifications for firefighting on aircraft and complies with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, he said.

More about the military’s response to PFAS contamination is on their website.