Tim McNees hobbled into the meeting with hope and a 5-inch stack of medical documents. He left, head hung in disappointment.
McNees, his wife Denise and father-in-law, Pat DiMarco, all came to the U.S. Navy’s open house Tuesday night expecting they’d learn more about water contamination on and around Willow Grove’s Naval Air Station and Warminster’s Naval Air Warfare Center in Montgomery and Bucks counties.
Many who attended the event at Horsham Township Community Center were hoping to learn if their water is really safe to drink and whether a burgeoning number of life-threating health problems among former staff are connected to unregulated chemicals that make up firefighting foam used by the facilities.
Despite one-on-one meetings with environmental, municipal and military experts, plenty of people felt those deputized to assuage their fears either didn't know the answers to their questions or weren't willing to answer them.
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"From what I’ve seen so far, a lot of smoke and beam blowing around in there," McNees said.
McNees spent 12 years at Willow Grove as an Aviation Machinist’s Mate working on helicopter engines, transmissions and rotor blades. Since then, he’s had four aneurysms and lost two kidneys to what he called an unknown blood-clotting disorder. After he endured five surgeries, McNees has one new kidney. He’s spent the last six months learning to walk again.
“This is what makes this kinda interesting because I never had any health problems or issues until we were stationed up here for several years,” McNees said, resting on a bench just feet away from the line of people waiting to join hundreds in a noisy, crowded room.
Looking back, McNees wonders if his mystery illness was caused by all the water he drank at "The Grove."
“In the Navy, you either have a cup of coffee in your hand or a bottle of water in your hand, or a cup of water or you know, you fill up your soda cup with water and we drank nonstop.”
Denise McNees is frustrated, stressed and scared.
"This last time I wasn’t sure if he would ever walk again they told us. So, it was a downer. It got to the point where I actually had to go to the doctor and get some help. I just, I couldn’t handle it anymore. It’s very stressful, very stressful,” Denise said. They also raised three sons in Warminster’s military housing and her father, who has lived across the street from the Willow Grove base for 26 years, has cysts on his kidneys.
"I want answers. Real answers. I want you to tell me -- if it is from the water, then say it’s from the water," she said.
The two unregulated chemicals in question are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). They were in firefighting foam used at the military facilities and have been linked to cancers and reproductive problems.
Most of us, if tested, would have PFOS/PFOA in our blood, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because we’ve been exposed through food and manufacturing products from Scotchgard to carpet, clothing, food packaging and flame-retardant furniture materials. PFOS was phased out of production between 2000 and 2002, according to the EPA and PFOA production was virtually eliminated in 2015.
Valerie Colonna Secrease came Tuesday to advocate for herself and other people who worked at Willow Grove and have since developed cancer and other ailments.
"This is what, in the Navy, we would call a cluster," Secrease said, irked and disheartened with the meeting setup, which she felt was too noisy, too crowded and too tough to get straight answers.
"Although, I did have the toxicity expert tell me I should get my blood tested for heavy metal toxicity,' said Secrease whose malignant melanoma was diagnosed in 1997.
Government and military officials shake their heads “No” when asked if fears in the community about drinking water are unfounded. Their messaging at the open house was about what they knew and when they knew it, which evolves into a scientific conversation about emerging knowledge and technologies for water quality.
In simple language, the Navy’s stance is that it didn’t know PFOA/PFOS were dangerous until this century. And once the EPA determined these compounds were suspect, they had no way at that moment in time to detect the chemicals in water. It took researchers years -- until 2012 -- to develop an accurate lab test.
"Water is a very serious issue, people take it very seriously and the Navy, EPA and Pennsylvania DEP as well as the municipal townships that are providing water take it very seriously as well," said Gregory Preston, director of the Navy's base closure program management office. "We believe that the water supply that Warminster Township, Horsham Township and Warrington Township, that they're providing safe drinking water."
Last week, the EPA issued a new, more stringent advisory for PFOA/PFOS levels in drinking water, which prompted the government to offer free bottled water to residents in Horsham, Warminster and Warrington until the public water supplies could be tested.
Congressman Todd Stephens is raising two young children in Horsham. Although results of Horsham’s public water supply tests complied with the EPA’s new levels, his family is sticking to bottled water. Stephens said he’s pushing for blood testing in communities around the base that would measure and track PFOA/PFOS exposure.
Worn down, Tim McNees made his way out of the informational session and waited for his wife to pull the car around.
“It was totally pointless and worthless,” McNees said.
Being sick definitely sucks. So does losing something he loved.
“Honestly, it was the best job I ever had.”