Navy to test Chesapeake well water near Fentress for contaminants

By Brock Vergakis


The Navy will begin testing well water for contaminants within a half-mile of Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field today, although it will take about a month to determine whether chemicals from a firefighting foam that was used there for decades have affected any homes’ water supplies.

The landing field is near the Virginia Beach border in a rural section of Chesapeake that is not connected to the city’s water system. Fighter jets from Oceana Naval Air Station use the field to practice aircraft carrier-style landings , and from the 1950s through the 1980s, the Navy routinely used a foam containing what are now considered potentially dangerous chemicals to practice extinguishing fires.

Navy officials last month discovered high levels of contaminants in its well water at the airfield and told its 50 workers to stop drinking from taps until a long-term solution is available. The Navy is providing them bottled water , while Chesapeake has a water-filling station across the street from nearby Butts Road Intermediate School for residents concerned their well water may be contaminated. If nearby homes’ well water is found to have high levels of the contaminants, the Navy said, it would provide bottled water as a short-term fix.

Navy officials said Tuesday about 90 properties are within the affected half-mile radius. Depending on the results of the testing, the Navy could expand the radius for future tests. During an informational meeting Tuesday, dozens of residents who live near the airfield examined maps to determine their risk and gather information from state and federal officials.

“They do their training, and I don’t care about the noise,” said Jane O’Leary, who lives just south of Fentress outside the half-mile zone of concern. “If they’re poisoning the water, you know, that’s a different story.”

It’s unclear how much of a health risk the contaminants pose, although some studies have indicated there’s an elevated risk for cancer in animals and damage to human liver cells and an association with thyroid disease.Other studies have shown exposure may cause elevated cholesterol levels and low birth weight in humans.

Eric O’Connor said he showed up to the meeting because his wife grew up near the airfield. He said their 3-year-old son was nearly categorized as low birth weight and wanted to know whether there might be a connection. After examining a Navy map, he said his wife was outside the half-mile radius that will be tested, but he’s still concerned.

”I just want to make sure our son didn’t have anything associated with this elevated levels, if there are going to be elevated levels,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate perfluorinated compounds, the contaminants, but it considers them an “emerging contaminant” that could threaten health or the environment. The EPA is studying the contaminants to figure out whether regulations for acceptable levels are needed. Until then, it has set advisory levels that testing at Fentress exceeded.

The man-made chemicals are readily absorbed after oral exposure and accumulate primarily in the serum, kidney and liver, according to an EPA fact sheet. The compounds commonly are found in paints, fabric, carpets, nonstick cookware, floor wax and food packaging, among other things.

Fentress is the only Navy installation in Hampton Roads with well water that used the firefighting foam. Laboratories only recently were able to analyze samples for the contaminants, and in Virginia there are no guidelines regulating them.

Restoration of the groundwater will be addressed by the Navy Environmental Cleanup Program.

Back to Top