New Jersey

Family Threatens to Sue Navy Over Water Contamination at Local Military Bases

A Philadelphia law firm is threatening to sue the Navy if it doesn’t act quickly to take responsibility for water contamination on and around local military bases. That includes coming up with an abatement plan as well as testing and then monitoring the health of 70,000 residents in affected communities.

The intent to sue notice was sent Friday on behalf of the Giovanni’s, a family of 5 living within 300 feet of the now defunct Grove Naval Air Station.

In 2003, the Giovanni family moved into their Poplar Road home and used their private well water for 11 years. When they learned it contained high levels of PFCs -- more than 40 times times the EPA’s health advisory level -- through EPA testing in 2014, they were given bottled water for six months and then hooked up to Warrington’s public water supply, only to find out last month that too had toxic levels of the same chemicals.

"The drinking water and health of almost 70,000 current residents, and untold numbers of past residents, to say nothing of workers at the facilities themselves, has been jeopardized” said environmental attorney Mark Cuker. "Some have been exposed to PFCs from both private and public water supplies."

According to the EPA, "PFOA and PFOS pose potential adverse effects for the environment and human health" including but not limited to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy induced hypertension, high cholesterol, and other diseases.

The notice of intent does not say if any Giovanni family members -- three adults and two children under the age of 18 -- have suffered illnesses they believe are connected to water contaminants. But it does say for all those years the Giovanni's, like many other people in the community and certainly on the bases, drank, bathed and brushed their teeth with water they thought was safe and blames the U.S. government for improperly disposing of solid waste or hazardous waste for decades.

PFCs (perfluoochemical compounds), specifically PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), are found in firefighting foam used on Willow Grove Naval Air Station and Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster, as well as more than 660 other U.S. military facilities.

People who worked on local bases have organized through a private Facebook group over the last four years. They've tracked well over 100 cancers cases they believe are connected to chemicals on the base. Workers there, both enlisted and civilians, consider themselves the ground zero victims, drinking water from what's been a Superfund site since 1995.

"It’s almost ignorant to believe that the military did not know of this," said Paul Lutz who at 43 suffers from multiple myeloma. Lutz served at Willow Grove as a Flight Engineer from 2000 and officially retired in 2014. "Somebody had to order the chemical. Somebody had to review the hazards. Somebody had to say, 'How does it work, what does it do, how do we store it?'" 

The Giovanni’s notice of intent says waste from the two facilities got into the groundwater, polluting public and private wells in Warminster, Warrington and Horsham townships.

“Despite the facilities’ presence on the National Priorities List (NPL) for more than two decades, direct EPA oversight has failed to prevent ongoing PFC use and disposal at the Facilities, failed to prevent or abate contamination or migration of these toxic contaminants to local public and private drinking water sources, failed to prevent or abate drinking water contamination by PFC’s, and failed to prevent ingestion and bioaccumulation of PFCs by the local population, including sensitive subpopulations of infants and children. These failures for more than two decades have left the Resident family, their neighbors and workers at the facilities exposed to toxic hazards from solid or hazardous waste.

The intent to sue is a 60 day notice to the Navy, asking them to agree on a plan of abatement and health monitoring. If that doesn't happen within the time frame, Cuker says his law firm plans to file lawsuits in federal and state courts on behalf of the Giovanni’s and residents of the other townships.

"People continue to be exposed to high levels of PFCs in surrounding groundwater" says Cuker, "from the chemicals migrating downstream from the Willow Grove site to Park Creek, Neshaminy Creek, and other waterways."

Just last week, an investigation by The Intelligencer showed water contaminated with PFCs was still being released from the Horsham Air Guard Station (former Willow Grove NAS), into Park Creek which connects to Little Neshaminy Creek.

Paul Lutz, married father of three, has endured radiation therapy, is on his third round of chemotherapy and trying to get healthy enough for a stem cell transplant. He wants anyone who worked on the bases from the time PFCs were introduced to be notified about exposure and included in any testing and health monitoring. Not only should all people -- on and off the bases -- be tested for chemical exposure, he said, but also for cancer.

"This is technically friendly fire," Lutz said in an interview Friday about the water contamination.

Another law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, which works with consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, is talking with people both on and off the bases about filing suit as well. They announced an investigation into the water contamination last week and expect to send a team down in the next two weeks to talk in person with members of the community.

Cuker’s environmental law firm, Williams, Cuker, Berezofsky, represented families in the Toms River children cancer cluster case and negotiated a multi-million dollar settlement that was divided among 69 families. The case became the subject of Dan Fagin’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.

Earlier this month, Cuker’s firm reached a settlement with the chemical company Solvay over allegations of PFC water contamination for residents of Paulsboro, New Jersey. Preliminary testing among a small group of children under 12 showed elevated cholesterol levels, according to Cuker. Part of the settlement allows for blood testing of up to 5,000 Paulsboro residents this summer.

We are awaiting response from the Navy on the intent to sue notification.

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