Amid continued precautionary advisory, pollution solution on the way to Blades

BLADES – A solution to pollution is on the way for Blades – a small Sussex county town with a big drinking water problem.

Residents of the Blades area fill seats at the Blades Fire Hall during the Feb. 13 meeting on the town water situation.

If all goes well, a carbon-based filtration system will be up and running in the near future, geared to remove perfluorinated compounds to ensure tap water is suitable for cooking and human/pet consumption.

Until then, it’s free bottled water with a precautionary advisory from state officials to only use tap water for bathing/showering and laundry purposes.

Before the 21-foot activated carbon system unit slated to arrive from Pittsburgh, Pa. mid-week gets the green light, the entire system – including the town’s 150,000-gallon water tower – must be completely flushed, tested and inspected at various levels.

Fire hydrants must also be flushed.

Keith Mensch, program administrator for Delaware’s Office of Drinking Water said the entire process for set-up, flushing and testing could take a week to a week and half, possibly longer depending on results.

Mr. Mensch was among the panelists on hand for a Feb. 13 public information meeting called to update residents on the town’s water situation.

Since Friday, Feb. 9, the state has been providing residents bottled water in bulk after test samples from the town’s three municipal wells detected concentrations of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level of 70 parts-per-trillion.

Sample tests were taken in late 2017 following a request from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its probe into unregulated compounds associated with fire-retardant foam and Teflon-type products.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin responds to a question.

“We ended up being here because we were working with the Environmental Protection Agency as they are looking at unregulated compounds throughout the country, particularly PFCs on where there was a potential of finding this,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin. “They identified two facilities in and around the area that in the past could have used this compound. That is why we targeted Blades’ drinking water systems to see if we found levels that were over the 70 parts per trillion. It is a very conservative number. We are acting on all abundance of caution in making sure that you have not only drinking water now, but you have drinking water in the future that you can be sure when it comes out of your tap it is good for you to drink.”

According to the Delaware Division of Public Health, PFCs are not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, but long-term exposure to perfluorooctanoicacid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) can affect pregnant women and infants, cause cancer and impact the liver and immune system.

Samples results from Blades’ system are averaging about 130 parts per trillion, said Jamie Mack, Division of Public Health’s Acting Sections Chief for the Health Systems Protection.

“Just so everybody knows a part per trillion is something along the lines of a drop in a swimming pool. This is a very, very low level of contamination that we are seeing,” said Mr. Mack.

“What is in the water is low level,” said Sec. Garvin. “The EPA doesn’t necessarily respond to these incidents until it gets up to 400 parts per trillion. We have been proceeding on this in abundance of caution.”

Blades resident Michael Smith, flanked by Blades Mayor David Ruff, speaks at the informational meeting on the town’s water contamination.

Asked if residents or children be tested or screened, Mr. Mack said “really at this point we are not recommending any type of blood testing or treatment beyond ending the exposure by using alternate water sources. These are very, very common chemicals. Most of us in the country have probably been exposed to them throughout our lives with Teflon pans, other non-stick surfaces and a variety of other sources.”

“There is a lot of research out there related to the compound, to the chemicals. Thankfully our research is continuing, our information is getting better. So, we are not in a situation where we don’t necessarily have an idea of what those concerns are or what the levels might be. But we are continually working to have a better picture of that,” said Mr. Mack. “These best thing we can do is end the exposure, and get town back on a safe drinking water source.”

Concerned residents grilled panelists on various topics. The list included potential long-term health effects, cost of the new filtration system and potential contamination beyond the impacted area outlined.

“We are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to look at private wells that surround the town of Blades to ensure that we have good data and information outlining what if any potential impacts are there,” said Sec. Garvin.

The filtration system once in operation is designed to cover residents on the town’s water system. Those outside town limits with private wells are urged to contact DNREC’s Rick Galloway at 302-395-2600 for information on EPA sampling and treatment options.

One speaker told the panel of similar cancer incidents involving two young children in the Blades area.

Based on data and trends, Mr. Mack said the public health department has seen no evidence in the cancer data that there is an elevation of cancer rates in the area tied to these contaminants.

Sec. Garvin said EPA in 2013 identified PFCs as one of the products used in fire suppression foam used at airports.

Rick Galloway of DNREC shows a map of the identified contamination zone.

“Since then the EPA has been looking at where there might be other industries, other facilities that might have used these compounds as well, which has led us to the two facilities in Blades,” said Sec. Garvin. “I want to stress again, this is an unregulated compound. So, it is not something that is normally tested as part of drinking water. It is not part of the normal sweep.”

Sec. Garvin added that DNREC has “not made the link back to any one facility. It was purely a targeting.”

Sec. Garvin said right out of the gate DNREC has been covering the cost for water, purchase of the filtration system and set-up. “That is all being addressed,” he said.

A second carbon filtration unit will be required to complete the permanent system.

On a longer-term basis, Mr. Mack made note of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund grant/loan program. “

“We’re committed to working with the town to ensure that the town has the financing and the funding they need to buy the equipment that they need,” said Mr. Mack.

In response to Gov. John Carney’s Feb. 9 executive order, the Delaware National Guard is coordinating distribution of bottled drinking water to affected Blades’ residents at the Blades Fire Station.

Two 400-gallon water buffaloes and a 5,000-gallon tanker are on site. Water can be obtained daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the fire hall, located at 200 East 5th Street.

“Our biggest main focus is making sure that we are communicating with you and keeping you updated on various steps we are taking, why we are doing it and when it is going to happen, as well as making sure that we are available to answer questions and concerns,” said Sec. Garvin.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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