Years of work ahead to study chemical pollution at NASA site
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Understanding the extent of contamination at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility from dangerous industrial chemicals that also made their way into the drinking water for the nearby island town of Chincoteague will take years, officials said this week.
Meanwhile, the popular tourist town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is moving ahead with plans to find a new supply for its drinking water, which has to be piped in from the mainland. It recently spent a sizeable amount of its relatively small budget to buy land for new wells it feels confident will be free of contamination from the chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are emerging as a problem nationwide.
Although NASA has been providing supplemental drinking water since the chemicals were first detected over a year ago, town manager Jim West said he sees it as a risk for both NASA and Chincoteague not to make a change.
“If there’s contaminants, isn’t the wiser thing to get out of the field of contaminants? We want to relocate somewhere we think we will be safe,” he said.
The man-made chemicals referred to as PFAS were once used in a wide variety of products, including protective coatings like Teflon. NASA used firefighting foam containing PFAS at Wallops. PFAS, which is persistent in both the environment and the human body, is increasingly turning up in water systems across the country. Scott Pruitt called the issue a “national priority” before resigning as Environmental Protection Agency administrator this year.
Once PFAS was detected on Wallops property, where Chincoteague has seven wells, NASA began collaborating with the town on public outreach and further testing.
The town’s wells where PFAS was detected were taken offline, and Wallops began providing extra water. PFAS levels in the town’s finished drinking water never exceeded health advisory limits set by the EPA, and NASA says the water has been PFAS-free for more than a year.
Now NASA is moving onto a long-term strategy to understand the full extent of the problem and clean it up. The agency recently submitted a site investigation plan for review by federal and state officials, officials told The Associated Press this week. A NASA spokesman declined to make a copy of the work plan available, saying it was still in draft form and under review.
The plan calls for sampling soil and groundwater and using monitoring wells to try to understand exactly where the PFAS is and how it’s moving in those areas, said TJ Meyer, associate chief of the medical and environmental management division at NASA Wallops.
After that data is available, NASA will conduct a risk assessment and evaluate remedial options, Meyer said.
“This is going to be a multi-year effort,” Meyer said.
NASA has already installed perimeter wells, and testing so far has shown the PFAS is not leaving Wallops’ property, Meyer said.
David Liu, restoration program manager at Wallops, said the eventual management of the waste products will be “a challenge” because the chemicals were designed to repel water, resist heat and not break down in the environment.
As for Chincoteague, West said there had been no hiccups so far in using Wallops’ water supply as a supplement, even during a second busy summer season under the arrangement. The town is nationally known for an annual crossing of wild ponies from Assateague Island memorialized in Marguerite Henry’s novel “Misty of Chincoteague.”
NASA is not charging the town for the extra water or the testing. But Chincoteague did pay about $350,000 to buy the property for new wells and to drill two test wells — money West hopes NASA will eventually reimburse along with the millions more it’s expected to cost to develop the new wells.
The town, which has a population of about 3,000 and an annual budget of around $8 million, wouldn’t be facing the expense if not for the PFAS, he said.
NASA supports the town’s efforts to relocate its wells and “is currently evaluating the possibility and process for obtaining the necessary legal authority to provide funds to the town for this specific purpose,” Wallops spokesman Jeremy Eggers said.
The Wallops facility, established in 1945, is used as a launch site for aircraft, scientific balloons and rockets. It’s also a test site for unmanned aircraft and has a research airport. Firefighters at Wallops used a common foam containing PFAS compounds both for training and to extinguish fires from aircraft crashes, according to NASA.