City OKs waiver for properties near DAFB to get drinking water

DOVER — The City of Dover is poised to waive an annexation requirement for several properties near Dover Air Force Base to ensure that residents can have safe drinking water.

The properties northwest of the base are experiencing water problems due to the use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) for firefighting procedures on base.

To help remedy the situation, the city’s Utility Committee voted Oct. 29 to follow staff recommendation to waive the annexation requirement for properties from 1140 to 1290 South Bay Road so that they may receive water service from the city.

The properties include a shopping center with five businesses, two residences and an office building.
Sharon Duca, Dover’s director of Public Works, said annexation is typically “required to connect to our utilities, but due to the situation of this location and the public safety issues, as well as the fact that it was not due to any conditions of the property owners or their fault, we’re requesting that the waiver be granted for requiring annexation in order to connect to the city of Dover water.”

City Manager Donna Mitchell said that requesting a waiver for the annexation requirement was a way to speed the process along should the base eventually request help for water service for the affected properties.
“The water is on the other side of the highway, so you’d have to come under the highway to get to these properties,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “The base would be paying for that project as I understand it. We’re asking for the waiver to prepare for the base to come forward. They haven’t made the official request.

“They just told us that this was a problem and we’re just trying to make sure that we’ve got this matter taken care of so if they do come forward and they’re ready to pay for this project we can move forward because we’ve got council’s approval. So, we’re trying to be proactive with this waiver request.”

Dover Air Force Base is currently conducting investigations into the environmental impacts of the use of firefighting foam that contained Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) on base.
The contents of the AFFF (foam) included the chemicals perfluorooctance sulfonate (PFOS) and perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA). These chemicals have proven to be harmful to humans if ingested and can cause cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

“Some of the (four) private wells on these properties (on South Bay Road) have been found to include these chemicals,” Mrs. Duca said. “As a result of the analysis, the recommendation has been by the Air Force Base to connect to public water supply and the city of Dover’s supply is the closest and the city of Dover, just to clarify, has not tested positive for these chemicals. We don’t have ground wells close to the base.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has published lifetime health advisories for these chemicals of 70 parts per trillion when found in drinking water. Samples by DAFB of private wells on South Bay Road in June 2019 found that the levels of PFOS and PFOA exceeded 70 parts per trillion.
DAFB officials believe the cause of the chemical levels is from their use of the firefighting foam.

The air base is currently providing bottled water to the affected properties. Moving forward, DAFB officials believe the best course of action is for the properties to be connected to the city of Dover’s water distribution system, which has not tested positive for PFOS or PFOA chemicals.
“I think it is beholden upon us to assist them in making sure that our neighbors are not having a problem with their water,” City Councilman Fred Neil said.

Dover’s not alone
Dover Air Force Base is far from alone when it comes to contamination associated with the use of AFFF. In fact, more than 100 military bases from across the nation have been affected by the firefighting foam.

An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the Dover base had the fourth highest reported PFAS contamination of more than 100 tested military installations,
Lt. Col. Vhance V. Valencia wrote a letter dated Sept. 26 to Mrs. Mitchell formally asking the city to prepare for the water project for Bay Road.

“The Air Force believes the best course of action for the affected properties is to connect them to the city of Dover public water supply,” he wrote.
“However, I am not authorized to obligate the Air Force to pay for the connection. At this time, the Air Force is reviewing whether it may design and pay for the construction of an extension to the existing city of Dover water main located on the east side of South Bay Road.

“Per preliminary discussions with your staff, the water main will need to be extended across South Bay Road and continue south along the west side of the road, to the southernmost affected property.
“There are many details that need to be worked out, including initiation of annexation activities, coordination with other agencies such as the Delaware Department of Transportation, and property owner involvement.”

He added, “The Air Force will work closely with city of Dover personnel and will keep you apprised regarding the determination of our ability to pay for the connections to the city of Dover public water supply.
“We appreciate your cooperation and assistance as we move forward with providing an alternative water supply to the affected properties on South Bay Road.”

Mayor Robin Christiansen was confident that the Air Force will be the ones who will pay for the water project.
“We’ve had other bases that have had similar situations and they have picked up the entire tab for coming up with water, so I think we’re in good shape as for the cost of it,” he said.
City Councilman Tanner Polce noted that DAFB is designated as a Superfund site and the federal government would be responsible for the remediation costs associated with the project.

“I think the base needs to take responsibility,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “I do think it is a public health issue, but I don’t think our ratepayers should bear the cost of this project that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the base.”

Carper criticizes DOD
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the Department of Defense (DOD) should have placed more urgency when it comes to PFAS.

“The Air Force is engaging directly with members of the surrounding communities to make them aware of the contamination levels found in their drinking water supplies,” said Sen. Carper in July.
“But as Dover residents know all too well, this is far from a new threat — and the Air Force’s actions (last summer) represent only a tiny fraction of their long-term responsibilities.

“Disappointingly, the Department of Defense has not been confronting this issue with the urgency it deserves.
“DOD continues to advocate for weaker groundwater cleanup standards and downplay the extent of their cleanup liabilities.”
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester agreed that a solution needs to be found.
“They (DOD) simply have not done enough to address widespread PFAS contamination and our communities are suffering because of it,” she said.

“My team will continue to work with the Dover Air Force Base to ensure that this problem is dealt with appropriately.
“While we are encouraged by these actions and by the 436th Airlift Wing’s (at DAFB’s) immediate efforts to mitigate exposure to affected communities through the provision of bottled water, we urge you to take additional actions to ensure that impacted residents and businesses have access to safe sources of drinking water going forward.”

The Air Force said it is committed to eliminating firefighting foam containing either PFOS or PFOA from its inventory and is finalizing a phased plan to replace existing firefighting foam inventories with recently approved PFOS/PFOA-free alternatives that still provide adequate fire protection for critical assets and infrastructure.

DAFB, back in 2016, switched the foam in its emergency vehicles for another firefighting foam that is PFOS-free and contains trace amounts of PFOA.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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