The Guam Environmental Protection Agency is in discussion with the U.S. Department of Defense concerning potential "responsibility for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) contamination on the airport property," according to Guam Waterworks Authority General Manager Miguel Bordallo, who relayed the information to members of the Consolidated Commission on Utilities during a meeting Oct. 19.
Bordallo said GWA is mostly not involved in the discussions but he clarified that talks may include determining whether PFOS contamination at water wells in Tiyan was the result of former DoD activities and if the military had any responsibility in the matter.
"We're stepping back from that and letting (GEPA) handle it and if there is some relief for us in terms of compensation or material procurement, we'll address that when it comes up. But at this point, we're moving on with protecting public health and safety," Bordallo said.
Despite multiple attempts, the Post was not able to contact Walter Leon Guerrero, GEPA administrator, for comment.
Effects and history
In early August, the water utility stated that three wells tested for contaminants above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threshold for public notification: two in central village areas and one in Tiyan – referred to as NAS-1, near the A.B. Won Pat International Airport. Further testing showed that two more wells near the airport were also contaminated.
The contaminant, PFOS, is a synthetic chemical part of a large group of perfluoroalkyl substances used in various products, including food items, according to a May USEPA health advisory. Exposure to PFOS remains possible because of its persistence in both the environment and the human body.
"PFOS was detected in blood serum in up to 99 percent of the U.S. general population between 1999 and 2012; however, the levels of PFOS in blood have been decreasing since U.S. companies began to phase out production," the advisory stated.
Long-term exposure to PFOS over a certain threshold may lead to adverse effects to the liver and immune system, low birth weight and even cancer.
Contamination of water resources has been associated with releases from industrial sites, fire or crash training sites and industrial or municipal waste dumping.
Prior to becoming Guam's commercial airport, the property on which the Tiyan facility sits was under U.S. Navy operation as Naval Air Station Agana until its closure in 1995. At that point, the airport authority took over operations. The initial facility was first built by the Japanese Navy during World War II.
While longtime military activity may be the source of contamination at the Tiyan wells, regulatory agencies have not yet reported the source for the central wells, although Bordallo held a personal theory that contaminants may have leaked from a Korean Airlines plane crash in 1997.
Since last year
Regardless of the source of the contaminants, GWA was aware of PFOS presence in Guam's drinking water since last year, according to the USEPA. Moreover, detection of PFOS contamination was not reflected in the 2015 water quality report from GWA.
However, the threshold for public notification of PFOS at the time of detection was around 200 parts per trillion. The new threshold, issued this year, is about 70 parts per trillion. GWA's initial detection in three water wells – two in central villages and NAS-1 – found PFOS contamination at or above 110 parts per trillion.
But PFOS is also an unregulated chemical under federal standards and GWA was only required to conduct monitoring of PFOS under the third cycle of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, according to USEPA. The federal agency collects information from water utilities participating in the monitoring program to determine if further regulation is needed.
"There was no requirement to do anything other than, if you participate in the program, you do the sampling, you get the results and you give it to USEPA," Bordallo said. "If they require us to include it (in the next water quality report) we will, but it isn't a requirement at this time."
The new PFOS threshold was set in May but letters to affected customers were not issued until Aug. 11. CCU commissioners discussed the notices during a GWA work session that month.
Utility officials stated there were certain USEPA requirements for the wording in the letters, which covered where PFOS can come from and the possible effects for long-term consumption of contaminated water.
About 1,000 of about 50,000 GWA customers were affected. News of the contaminants came days before the issuance of the letters from media reports citing USEPA sources.
"That's where USEPA really did us a disservice, because instead of waiting for us to get the announcement out to the affected people, they issued the information before we were able to notify those 1,000 and then 40,000 customers who didn't have an issue were (freaking out)," Bordallo said during the August meeting.
During the October meeting, CCU chairman Joey Duenas asked Bordallo to keep the CCU apprised of GWA water testing so they can relay the information to constituents.
Actions done and pending
The central contaminated wells were taken offline on Aug. 5. The NAS-1 well was offline by Aug. 12. Bordallo has stated that GWA planned to have all wells back online in the future. While there is a treatment system for NAS-1, it has not been maintained by the airport authority, according to GWA. Replacement work for that system is ongoing, according to CCU documents.
The central wells do not have a treatment system. GWA had been looking into a portable system for these wells. The technical specifications for these systems are under review and an invitation for bid is pending, according to CCU documents.
A treatment system for the contaminated wells near NAS-1 has remained online, and filters water to within USEPA guidelines, according to past statements from Bordallo.