Horsham Votes on How to Clean Up Contaminated Water

Families in Bucks and Montgomery counties urged local lawmakers to clean up their drinking water during a meeting before Horsham Township Council. The demands come a day before they decide to join a class-action lawsuit. NBC10's Denise Nakano has the details. (Published Tuesday, June 28, 2016)

Growing concerns over tainted water pushed Horsham Township leaders in a direction they boast could make their drinking water some of the safest in the country among communities dealing with PFC contamination.

PFCs or perfluorinated chemicals including PFOA and PFOS were found in the township’s private and public water supplies. The unregulated chemicals are in firefighting foam used for decades at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station and Joint Reserve Base.

Council adopted a measure Monday night they say should reduce the level of those unregulated chemicals in the public water supply to 1 part per trillion by the end of the year. The Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime exposure advisory level for PFOA and PFOS combined is 70 parts per trillion.

“The bad news is the U.S. government contaminated our water. The good news is the U.S. government contaminated our water and they’re not going anywhere,” said Township Manager Bill Walker addressing residents invited to hear what the township and Horsham’s Water and Sewer Authority (HWSA) were doing to address the wave of frustration and fear.

The vote came after a night of sometimes contentious but mostly civil discussion and comments from residents.

“It just seems like it takes a long time before anything’s really getting done, and that’s why we’re confused,” said Bill Gaida, explaining his family was told in 2014 the water was safe and reassured again last year by the township that everything was fine. “We’ve had four cancers in our family since we came here. . .This is a big concern. I don’t think it’s gonna go away.”

Gaida, 75 and his wife Kay have lived in Horsham for fifty years. She’s survived three cancers and the couple’s son, Chris battled testicular cancer when he was 26. He wasn’t satisfied with the night’s outcome. “It’s kind of odd that 20 people died in the neighborhood of cancer,” he said. Many residents are worried the contamination has or could lead to health problems. PFCs are connected to several cancers, high cholesterol and reproductive issues. Chris wants mandatory blood testing for all residents, mandatory soil testing and monthly water testing. “And for all those tests to be public knowledge,” said Chris, frustrated because he hasn’t been given historical data requested on test results for water contaminants.

“We are strongly cautioning people, if there is blood testing of levels, understand that once you get your number, there’s a gap and people can’t tell you what that number means,” said Township Solicitor Mary Eberle, who said the state won’t pay for the tests and the federal government hasn’t answered Horsham’s request for funding, but that information could come in the next three weeks. “Understand that the results may not have much meaning at this point, but could be a great database going forward.”

Horsham has 15 public wells. Five were taken offline in May when the EPA’s new advisory came out. Walker and HWSA Business Manager Tina O’Rourke presented several remediation options. Each included re-mediating the 5 contaminated wells and bringing them back online with Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filters. Council adopted the most stringent option which calls for re-mediating a 6th well and buying 1.2 million gallons of water a day, but only from North Wales. Right now Horsham gets reimbursed by the Navy for 400K gallons a day from Aqua and another 400K from North Wales. O’Rourke said the Aqua water has PFC levels of 12 ppt. That’s low compared to the new advisory, but still higher than what the township could achieve if they stop using it.

Once implemented, this new filtration system would cost about $1.2 million a year.

Horsham leaders adamantly agree the military caused the contamination and should pay for the cleanup, Walker said.

“So we will be lobbying and pressuring the United States Navy and Air Force and any federal and state agency for funding above and beyond what the Navy is paying for currently,” Walker said, adding they’d also seek other federal and state funding sources and even consider an online petition, if needed, for residents to sign.

So far, the Navy has tested 290 private wells in the township. Seventy-six of those are above the lifetime health advisory level. For those residents, the Navy is supplying bottled water until they can hook them up to the public water supply and shut off their contaminated wells.

The Navy plans to test 100 additional private wells by the end of July and in the next two weeks, a private company hired by the township will conduct a random sampling of in-home testing for residents and businesses. They’re asking for volunteers on the public water supply system who’ll allow an outside company to test water out of their tap. Results get posted on the township’s website.

In an effort to help residents get more of their health-related questions answered, Walker announced a Town Hall panel discussion is planned for August 15. Anyone can attend and talk with toxicology experts, environmental scientists and health experts. Start time is 6:30 p.m. in the Hatboro-Horsham high school auditorium.

Richard Kraft has lived in Horsham for 41 years. He thinks the township needs the power and influence of a firm like Weitz and Luxenberg whose environmental attorneys meet with the community Tuesday, 6 p.m. at Upper Moreland High School’s auditorium.

“We need to become pit bulls. We need to get tough here or we’re gonna get walked on. We’ve already been walked on,” Kraft said. Only one number should matter, he argued. “Zero deaths per thousand.”