Group working to keep Whidbey’s water safe

A group focused on addressing contaminated water on Whidbey Island packed a room on a cold Monday night with about 150 concerned residents.

Whidbey Water Keepers brought in three experts to speak to the packed crowd in the Coupeville High School Commons about issues surrounding drinking water and chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds.

Anne Harvey, a member of the eight-person steering committee, said it wasn’t a surprise that so many people attended the informational meeting.

“I think there is significant concern,” she said. “I think people want to learn.”

The concern runs across the community. The committee, for example, is made up of a diverse group of people, from a farmer to an educator, she said.

Whidbey Water Keepers formed after the Navy announced in November of 2016 that it was testing well water in areas around Ault Field in Oak Harbor and Outlying Field in Coupeville for contaminants in a type of firefighting foam used to put out aircraft fires.

Last year the EPA set a lifetime advisory level for two compounds, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid.

Navy leaders called for all of its bases to look into the possibility that the chemicals had contaminated drinking water.

Testing found the chemicals in concentrations above the advisory level in 10 private wells in Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

The purpose of Whidbey Water Keepers, Harvey said, is to educate the Central Whidbey community about the contamination of the ground water and to take action to repair and protect the waters.

In February, the group held its first meeting, which was also very well attended. Local people spoke about their knowledge of and experiences with the chemicals.

The group also tested drinking water from 40 households spanning from Oak Harbor to Freeland to the Town of Coupeville.

The group used one of the few labs in the nation approved to test for perfluorinated compounds; the results were similar to what the Navy testing revealed.

“We were happy that there were no significant red flags,” she said.

Members of the group also participated in the development of a Chemical Action Plan for Per- and Poly-Fluorinated Alkyl Substances, or PFAS, on a state level.

One of the things the plan will recommend is to lower the lifetime advisory level for the chemicals, Harvey said. The EPA set a lifetime advisory level earlier this year for perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid at 70 parts per trillion.

The meeting the group held this week included two experts from off the island and the county’s hydrogeologist.

Joyce Dinglasan-Panlilio, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington, Tacoma, discussed her work studying PFAS, which is a “really big family of substances” that include the ones found in Whidbey wells.

She explained that the problem with PFAS is that they are widespread, persistent, bioaccumulative and potentially toxic.

They are present virtually everywhere on earth, even in the liver of a polar bear. She’s studying how PFAS, which don’t appear in nature, get into the environment.

She said there are plenty of studies on the effects the substances have on animals, but not a lot of studies on humans. They seem to target the liver and cause low birth weight, among other effects.

Erica Shreder, science director of the nonprofit group Toxic Free Future, explained that the group has targeted different toxic chemicals over the years, but has turned its attention to PFAS and is involved in the Chemical Action Plan.

Shreder said the group is promoting the idea that the state should address the entire class of PFAS, which go far beyond the two chemicals named by the EPA.

One of the problems, she said, is that companies don’t have to reveal which PFAS they are using.

Such chemicals are useful in many ways but not essential.

“If we banned the use today, the sky would not fall,” she said.

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