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Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Contaminates Neuse River With PFAS

Above Photo: North Carolina environmental activists Bobby Jones, Lib Hutchby, and Emily Keel on the banks of the Neuse River in Goldsboro, North Carolina on February 17, 2022. Bobby is holding the water sample he collected.

Bobby Jones has been fishing on the Neuse River since he was a young boy but he doesn’t fish in the river anymore because he says the fish are poisoned. It’s a hell of a thing.

Bobby says PFAS are bad, but it’s only part of a larger story of the contamination of the Neuse River and its fish.

The four of us met, along with my brother Mike, at the local Starbucks over a cup of coffee and blueberry muffins. We  discussed exactly where to collect samples of the Neuse River as close as we could get to the careless use of fire-fighting foam near Building 4735 on the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. These pursuits are always logistical challenges.  Obviously, we wanted to get as close as we could get to documented releases of the carcinogens on base.

We knew from Air Force reports that the groundwater flow direction at the “Aqueous Film-Forming Foam Area 4” near Building 4735 was to the southeast toward the Neuse River. This is the epicenter of PFAS releases in the Wayne County region.  We also knew surface waters from the base emptied into the river.

As it was, we had to settle for a location three miles southeast of the runway. Blame it on fences and barbed wire.

Even so, we detected 10 PFAS compounds in the water, with a total concentration of 132.6 parts per trillion.

PFOA – 2.9 ppt;
PFOS – 1.8 ppt;
PFBA – 5.2 ppt;
PFBS – 1.2 ppt;
PFHxA – 32.5 ppt;
PFHxS– 1.9 ppt;
PFHpA – 13.1 ppt;
PFPeA – 37.1 ppt;
6:2 FTS – 27.3 ppt;
PFECHS – 9.6 ppt.

See Pub Chem for chemical information and toxicity.

The Red X is the location of Building 4735. The Blue X shows the spot where we tested water on the Neuse River, about 3 miles southeast of the PFAS releases.

Bobby Jones is passionate about the river. “It’s really hard to respond to this information without getting angry. How do we protect our communities; especially, the preyed upon Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities? We can’t rely on our politicians. They are getting paid for allowing this to happen. I guess survival means not eating meat to include fish, drinking bottled or filtered water and trying to refrain from breathing!”

Bobby speaks truth to power.

There are no regulations that monitor these toxins in the Neuse River. The European Union Water Framework Directive has set an Environmental Quality Standard  limit of .65 parts per trillion for one kind of PFAS called PFOS in inland surface waters. The Neuse is almost three times that level. We collected our sample in Goldsboro where the  Sam Casey Bridge (NC Rt. 581) crosses the Neuse River.  The chemicals seep into the environment as they travel downstream in surface water. They tend to travel longer distances in groundwater.

At the Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, my brother Mike and I were able to drive on a service road along a canal that drained from the runway just a couple hundred feet away. We collected a water sample that showed nearly 3,000 ppt of total PFAS. PFAS concentrations closer to the source are likely to be higher.

Seymour Johnson encompasses 3,216 acres in central Wayne County, approximately 4 miles southeast of the center of Goldsboro. The base is bounded on the north and northwest by Stoney Creek and on the west and southwest by the Neuse River.

Building 4735

Building 4735, a two-bay hangar on base, is the location of one of the greatest environmental crimes in the history of North Carolina. The area is still churning out contaminants and may be forever.

The hangar has an active Aqueous Film-Forming Foam system, (AFFF). The Air Force says that accidental discharges of AFFF occurred in the building on February 4, 2015, and March 4, 2015. Massive quantities of the foam entered the floor drain system that leads to an oil water separator and exterior holding pond that has had documented releases of other contaminants. The hangar has two 3% AFFF suppression systems that include two 800-gallon tanks holding super-concentrated toxins. One part per trillion can be dangerous. One part per trillion is equivalent to one drop in ten Olympic-sized pools.

See the Final Site Inspections Report of Fire Fighting Foam Usage at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, October 2017.

The Air Force wants to make sure that if there’s a fire in the hangar that threatens to engulf their F-15E Strike Eagles they can put it out in a hurry. Some of the F-15’s may cost up to $87.7 million per aircraft. The DOD claims nothing can put out a fire better than foams laced with PFAS. The Europeans say their environmentally safe fluorine-free foams are equally effective but may require a few seconds longer to extinguish the super-hot petroleum-fueled fires.

Actually, the release of these toxins into the environment doesn’t have much to do with real fires. The accidental discharges of the foam due too faulty overhead systems cause environmental calamity nationwide – and worldwide. Ask the Germans and the Japanese and they’ll tell you about PFAS contamination of their waters and fish from firefighting foams used on US bases.

Firefighting foams containing PFAS were used in training exercises at Seymour Johnson likely dating back to 1970 when the Air Force began using the carcinogens in routine training exercises.

The Air Force says the Seymour Johnson F-15E Strike Eagles are now forward deployed to defensive positions in Eastern Europe. These jets were filmed at RAF Lakenheath in February 2022 shortly before they were deployed. Lakenheath also has a big problem with PFAS.

Mind boggling quantities of the carcinogens have been released into Wayne County’s environment. The holding pond from the hangar drains to the sanitary sewer system which does not treat for  PFAS compounds. Wastewater treatment plants allow PFAS to pass through to the Neuse River.

Air Force contractors tested the surface soil near Building 4735 and found a staggering  2.3 million parts per trillion of Per Fluoro Octane Sulfonic acid (PFOS). This is an environmental catastrophe. The rains come and spread the cancer-causing compounds throughout Wayne County and beyond. There are numerous pathways to human ingestion.

Folks in Wayne County must understand the threat this poses to public health and learn to protect themselves. The state of North Carolina and the United States government have not been helpful in taking measures to protect human health in this regard.

Super-high concentrations of PFAS in soil allow the compounds to leach into groundwater and run off to surface water.  When concentrations reach astronomical concentrations like 2.3 million ppt, it means the injection of poisons into mother earth is substantial and will likely contaminate the environment for our lifetimes and possibly for many generations, and perhaps, forever.

Lib Hutchby was born and raised in the Tar Heel State. She’s a water protector and she volunteers with the Women‘s League for Peace and Freedom. She says she’s old enough to remember when she could drink from a mountain stream without health concerns. Lib says, “North Carolina must test the soils and the groundwater and people’s wells around Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. They must test the water and fish in the Neuse and set advisories if deemed appropriate.”

Emily Keel grew up in rural eastern North Carolina swimming, crabbing and fishing in the Pamlico River. She said, “The reaction to these results is jolting but the remedy is far from acceptable to those who see the sacrifice of human health and life and the ecology of the water as expedient.”

The Groundwater

It is frightening to consider that the groundwater at Seymour Johnson AFB contains 300,000 ppt of PFOS and 12,000 ppt of PFOA, although few are paying attention to the lethal PFAS contamination caused by the Air Force.

Public attention is fixated on the Chemours Plant along the Cape Fear River. The company has poisoned the region with GenX, a kind of PFAS.  It’s bad. GenX is deadly and the state isn’t doing enough on that front, either.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has reported groundwater levels for GenX at concentrations up to 61,300 ppt. in New Hanover County. Groundwater may seep into surface waters.

PFOS/PFOA levels of 312,000 ppt in Goldsboro’s groundwater reported by the Air Force are 5 times greater than the Gen X levels in the Chemours Cape Fear region.  If the Air Force tested for more varieties of PFAS or allowed independent labs to do it, the totals would be much higher. GenX is deadly but it is not believed to bioaccumulate in fish the way PFOS does. This is an important distinction because food, especially fish caught from contaminated waters, is a leading pathway to human ingestion for these chemicals.

The sidelined and discredited EPA has stated repeatedly, “In situations where groundwater is currently being used for drinking water, EPA expects that responsible parties will address levels of PFOA and/or PFOS over 70 ppt.” This is farcical. The EPA must bell the cat!

The DOD and its contractors dictate environmental policy in the U.S.

By mid-2021 North Carolina had tested 6,103 wells for GenX up to17 miles from the Chemours plant in New Hanover County. Why isn’t the state testing for PFAS in the greater Goldsboro area?

The Air Force says the closest reported off-base drinking water well to Building 4735 is  approximately 4,690 feet to the west-northwest. That’s all we know. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should not consume these chemicals. Nobody should.

Surface water

The surface water draining from Building 4735 on the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base had concentrations of PFOS at 3,100 ppt and PFOA at 200 ppt. The waters drain into the Neuse River.

PFOS and other PFAS compounds in our rivers are bio accumulative in fish, meaning the smallest presence of the compounds may begin a process that creates concentrations in the filet of fish in the many thousands of parts per trillion, and sometimes much higher. The EPA “advises” that states keep PFOS/PFOA in drinking water below 70 parts per trillion while we’re free to eat fish caught near military bases that may contain millions of parts per trillion of these toxic chemicals.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality signed a Consent Order with Chemours on Feb. 26, 2019 that required the company to keep levels of GenX under 140 ppt in the Cape Fear River. This measure has greatly reduced levels of PFAS in the river, with GenX concentrations consistently remaining below 140 ppt. Cape Fear River – the drinking water supply for 250,000 people.

Why doesn’t the state act as aggressively against the Air Force in Goldsboro that has reported 3,300 ppt of PFOS/PFOA in surface waters?  Folks in Goldsboro obtain their drinking water from the Neuse River. Goldsboro’s 2020 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report fails to mention PFAS.

What’s in the Dust?

A recent study by the CDC  showed the dust in homes in Martinsburg, WV near Shepherd Field Air National Guard base contained 13.9 million ppt of PFOS. Shepherd Field reported groundwater levels of 30,000 ppt while surface waters leaving a fire training area contained PFOS concentrations of 1,400 ppt.   The banks of lakes and streams nearby are saturated with these chemicals. When it becomes dry, the compounds become airborne, creating carcinogenic dust that people inhale. The average person tested had a mean blood serum level for PFOS of 5,080 ppt. It’s really bad.

It’s likely a lot worse in Goldsboro.

The groundwater in Goldsboro contains 312,000 ppt of PFOS/PFOA, more than ten times higher than Martinsburg’s levels while the surface water has 3,100 ppt of PFOS, more than twice the Martinsburg levels. It seems nobody gives a damn about Goldsboro.

What’s in your dust, Goldsboro? What’s in your blood?

“You don’t have to live near Chemours or DuPont or 3M to have exposure to these things,” said Linda S. Birnbaum, the former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “It is in the water. It is in our food. It’s in our homes and in our house dust. And depending on where you live, it may be in our air.”

The Air Force has only reported levels for PFOS, PFOA, and PFBS at Seymour Johnson. Their omissions of fact may cause harm in the community. For instance, dust in a home in Martinsburg contained  PFHxS at a staggering 16.4 million ppt. Shepherd Field has discarded higher concentrations of PFHxS than PFOS into groundwater and surface water. PFHxS is deadly too – but it’s not discussed in Goldsboro.

There’s so much they’re withholding from us!

The Air Force has ducked most of the attention regarding PFAS in North Carolina and it would prefer to continue flying under the radar.

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