Plattsburgh airbase leaves legacy of tainted wells

Janet Mitchell fills a glass of water from a Vermont Pure jug at her home in Plattsburgh. Mitchell’s home on Kemp Lane in the town of Plattsburgh is one of four that have been identified as having contaminated well water from chemicals known as PFAS. PFAS were in foam used to fight jet fuel fires on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base, not far from Mitchell’s home. (Provided photo — Kayla Breen, Press-Republican)

PLATTSBURGH — The former Plattsburgh Air Force Base property has been identified as one of 106 sites nationwide that have contaminated groundwater.

As a result, the wells of four homes near the base property are being treated.

“Of course, I worry after all these years,” said Janet Mitchell, a resident of Kemp Lane, where wells are being filtered.

“I wonder what it could cause.”

A recent report from the Department of Defense shows that 106 military or former military sites have been contaminated with hazardous amounts of polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS.

In addition to PAFB, Fort Drum in Watertown and the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome and a Defense Logistics Agency site in Verona, both in Oneida County, have also been identified as contaminated by the chemicals.

Linked to cancer

PFAS have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and weakened childhood immunity.

The chemical was in foam used to fight jet fuel fires.

Rodney Brown, Clinton County’s deputy administrator, said PFAS were used at the base regularly in firefighting training exercises.

The base was in operation from 1955 to 1995.

Brown said testing for the hazardous substance did not occur until a few years ago.

Tests were done on the base property and in surrounding areas, beginning in 2015.

“When we found high levels, we did further testing because that (substance) could migrate,” Brown said.

Filters, bottled water

David Farnsworth, program manager of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center in Plattsburgh, and a member of the Air Force Restoration Advisory Board, said that between 50 and 53 properties off the base, but near it, were sampled.

Municipal water supplies such as those in the City and Town of Plattsburgh and Town of Peru are safe, Brown said, as the contaminants cannot get into those systems.

Plattsburgh International Airport, on the site of the old base, is not affected.

“It’s only wells we are mostly concerned about,” Brown said.

Mitchell and most of her neighbors on Kemp Lane near the base property have wells.

Three of them have been provided with filter systems to cleanse their water supply.

Another home has been identified, but there is no room on the property to install a filter system, according to an Action Memorandum prepared by the United States Air Force Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

Residents there have been provided with bottled water, as have the other properties affected in addition to their filter systems.

Mitchell has a filter system and gets bottled water.

“I know the water is probably safe to drink with the filter, but I just feel better drinking the bottled water,” she said.

“I give it to my pets, too.”

Air Force’s responsibility

Long term solutions include hooking Kemp Lane into the Town of Plattsburgh’s water supply.

Town Supervisor Michael Cashman and Scott Stoddard of the town’s Water Department said they are exploring possibilities.

“We are talking to the Air Force about options, and we might be able to expand our public infrastructure,” Stoddard said.

The Air Force is responsible for the cost of addressing the issues.

According to the Action Memorandum, it has already spent about $173,882 on the problem.

The cost includes $47,480 for the installation of carbon treatment systems; $21,426 for operation and maintenance of those systems; $103,249 for eight rounds of quarterly monitoring; and $1,726 for bottled water.

Cashman said he has been speaking with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) about improvements not only to the water systems, but all infrastructure near the base.

“As the airport continues to expand, which is great for the local economy, we have to look at infrastructure,” he said.

Long-ago sins

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental watchdog organization in Washington, D.C., the dangers of PFAS have been long known.

The man-made chemicals were first created and introduced into commerce in the 1940s, according to a Working Group news release.

The two best-known are PFOA, formerly used to make Dupont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard.

Those chemicals, the release said, have been phased out in the United States.

“Despite concerns voiced by both 3M and Navy scientists as early as the 1970s, the military continued to require the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam for nearly 50 years,” the release said.

County Legislator Mark Dame (R-Area 8, City and Town of Plattsburgh), who represents Kemp Lane, said the Air Force and federal government should remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

“There are a lot of environmental sins that were committed years ago when nobody even knew they were sins,” he said.

“Now, they are ending up being environmental issues.”