Military moves to clean chemicals out of well water on Camp Pendleton
Officials at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton are bringing two new water filtration facilities online by the end of the year to address so-called "forever chemicals" in base drinking water.
Per- and poly fluoroalkyl substances, or "PFAS," are a family of man-made compounds used for more than 70 years in all manner of consumer products. Non-stick cookware, stain-wicking clothing and even fast food wrappers are just some of the many items in everyday use worldwide containing the compounds.
They're also present in the aqueous film forming foam used in firefighting, which has contributed to PFAS contamination at military bases, including Camp Pendleton.
But the source of the PFAS in the base's drinking water isn't suspected to be from military activities, according to a base official.
"Our best guess is it's old industrial contamination from sites to the northwest in Orange County," said Cmdr. Steve Ramsey, the public works officer at Camp Pendleton. "But ... we're not looking to point fingers."
Unlike other San Diego military installations with PFAS contamination, Camp Pendleton presents a specific concern because unlike those bases, it sources its drinking water not from municipal supplies but from underground aquifers fed by the Santa Margarita River.
Water is pumped from several wells concentrated in the north and south ends of the base. In October, California set new lower limits on PFAS in drinking water. When water from the northern wells tested beyond those new guidelines in February, the base shut down some wells — eight of them — and notified base personnel and military families.
The wells on the southern end, not over the limit for PFAS, are now supplying the base with drinking water, Ramsey said.
Dr. Jose Suarez is a physician and epidemiologist at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at UC San Diego who studies environmental health and the effects of chemicals on health.
He said research shows PFAS in the body can increase the risk of high blood pressure, preeclampsia and lower birth rates for pregnant women. There's also an increase in the risk of kidney and prostrate cancer and an impact on cholesterol levels.
Children show decreased responsiveness to vaccines as well, he said.
According to the Marine Corps, 38,000 military family members live on base with 70,000 service members and civilians working there every day.
The prevalence of PFAS in the environment is of particular concern to Suarez.
"Over 90% of people in the United States have measurable levels of these chemicals (in their blood)," Suarez said. "And the big issue here is that they're very stable in the environment so it takes them a long time to break up. So some chemicals, it could be months, some chemicals (it) could be years and some even decades."
"Over 90% of people in the United States have measurable levels of these chemicals (in their blood). And the big issue here is that they're very stable in the environment so it takes them a long time to break up. So some chemicals, it could be months, some chemicals (it) could be years and some even decades."Dr. Jose Suarez, physician and epidemiologist at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at UC San Diego
This is one reason the Environmental Protection Agency is moving to set a national standard for six of the hundreds of PFAS chemicals, the agency announced in March. Under the EPA's proposed rules, water systems would have to ensure their supplies don't test above four-parts per trillion for the chemicals.
Until now, there hasn't been a national standard for PFAS in water.
Ramsey said Camp Pendleton is equipped to meet these strict standards and reduce the measurable amount of PFAS in its water effectively to zero by the end of the year.
Water is processed at two plants on the base, one in the north and the other in the south. At the south plant, all drinking water is filtered via reverse osmosis, which is effective in filtering out PFAS, Ramsey said.
Improvements to the system — including the pipeline to the north now supplying that part of the base with water — were recently completed, with more coming.
"We hadn't needed to treat for PFAS until recent regulations came out and and focused our attention on it — but the infrastructure was here,” Ramsey said.
The south plant processes about six million gallons of water per day and it's enough to supply the base and the city of Fallbrook, which has a water deal with the military. However, due to aquifer levels in the south, it's not a long-term solution and the wells in the north will need to be brought back into the system.
Two new liquid phase granular activated carbon filtration systems will be up and running by the end of the year, one in the north and the other in the south. Once online, Ramsey said, water from the northern wells will once again supply the base with water — this time, free of PFAS.