Residents Raise Concerns About Response To Water Contamination At Pease

Apr 3, 2015

At a meeting this week, Seacoast residents raised concerns about the way the state has handled its investigation into water contamination at the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth.

Jeff McMenemy is a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald who has been covering this issue. He joins Morning Edition to give us the latest.

For those who haven’t been following, what type of contamination are we talking about? When did this first come up?

It came up in the May of 2014 when the Air Force had just begun testing for PFCs, or perfluorochemicals), which are an emerging contaminant of concern, according to the EPA. In a couple of the city-owned wells out here at the Pease Tradeport, which of course used to be the Pease Airforce Base, they found that the level of PFCs in the water in one of the wells – the Haven well – was actually 10 times higher than the EPA’s provisional health advisory. At that point, the city immediately shut down the well and began testing the other two wells they have our here at the tradeport and also setting up a bunch of monitoring wells to make sure that the PFCs weren’t moving closer to other water supplies out here.

What does a “contaminate of concern” mean exactly?

It’s something that the EPA believes is likely to cause harm to humans. That’s kind of a big issue with the PFCs is that there’s been no definitive health studies yet proving that they cause harm to humans, but there has been in animal studies. So, even though there’s been nothing definitive and the research is still very early, a lot of people are very concerned about what it could possibly do to people, especially the kids who are out on one of two daycares at the tradeport.

Are there any cases of health concerns happening from what’s happened at Pease attributed to this containment yet?

There’s not yet. There was a big meeting on Tuesday at the tradeport where more than 100 people met with the state about their concerns about there were several people at that meeting who are worried now that health issues they’ve had were caused or potentially caused by the PFCs in the water.

And what’s the state’s response?

The state still really doesn’t know, and they said that several times during the meeting on Tuesday. They’re worried that there could be adverse health effects, but they don’t know. They don’t even really know after the blood testing is done if levels come back high or higher than the national average, does that mean someone is going to potentially get sick because of it?

A big concern is that the state just hasn’t been communicating with residents. Did you hear a lot of that at the meeting?

Yes, and that’s been an ongoing issue. The state came out last year after the well was closed and had a meeting at Pease and kind of talked about some of the issues and some of the concerns that the state and the EPA and other health officials had about PFCs. And then they kind of disappeared. The meeting this week was the first time state officials have been back. The Air Force and the state has continued testing the water, but there’s really been no communication as far as what’s the next step in terms of health issues and it really was through the efforts of a Portsmouth woman Andrea Amico, who has two kids at one of the daycares here and whose husband has worked out at the tradeport for eight years who’s really kind of pushed the state to do the blood testing and to really expand their protocol because initially the state said they were only going to test 100 people who were exposed to the PFCs, even though there’s roughly 9,000 people who work at the former Air Force base. Many people who have worked here over the years, including firefighters, who have since retired.

There seems to be an unresolved issue of who’s going to pay for the blood tests for those who may have been exposed.

Here’s Senator Jeanne Shaheen earlier this week on the issue:

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

“There are two child care centers on what is now the Pease Tradeport. There are people who have been working there,” Shaheen said. “We have first responders who have been stationed there and we need to ensure they can get testing and that they don’t have to pay for it.”

So where do things stand?

The Air Force has not yet committed to pay for the additional tests that the state wants to do. They’ve actually referred the issue to another federal agency. They’ve asked them to do a health assessment and really check to see if they think doing the test is a good idea. The Air Force person I talked to said he’s not even sure the Air Force could pay for these tests even if they thought it was a good idea and there’s been. There’s been absolutely no timeline from them on when they’re going to get this information back and when and if they’re going to make a decision on whether to pay for the blood test.

There was some talk at the meeting that maybe these blood tests could be uses for some kind of research, but the state doesn’t seem to be willing to do that.

I think the state is kind of more open to that after the meeting. Somehow they got the impression that people just wanted them to do the tests so they knew what the levels of PFCs were in their blood or their kids’ blood and they really weren’t concerned about the research. I haven’t found that to be the case. Several people at the meeting said they want to have the information for them, but they also want to have the information for research.

Even if three or four months from now when the tests come back if the state and the CDC doesn’t know exactly what the results mean, by having these results and doing more research, maybe 5 or 10 years down the road, they will know what it means and will know how dangerous the PFCs are and to what level people could potentially become sick from them.