Chemicals threaten College’s water

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April 7, 2009

4:24 AM

There might be something foul in the water at Williamsburg’s Waller Mill Park.

An environmental investigation of York County’s Camp Peary conducted by U.S. Navy investigators revealed that Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) chemicals have been found in a drainage area that leads to the City of Williamsburg’s Waller Mill Park, according to a public notice issued Thursday.

Waller Mill Park is home to the reservoir that supplies Williamsburg with the majority of its drinking water. According to Dave Shepard, the College of William and Mary’s acting associate vice president of facilities management, the College gets its drinking water from the reservoir as well.

The investigation was conducted after PCBs were identified at Camp Peary’s Site 49F, an abandoned swimming pool that was used over three decades ago as a dump for construction debris from the camp.

A fact sheet on PCBs released by the Virginia Department of Health describes the chemicals as odorless and tasteless. The chemicals are man-made, and production ceased in 1977 after unnatural levels of PCBs began to accumulate in the environment.

Prolonged exposure to PCBs has been known to cause skin irritation, rashes and acne. Animals that have been exposed to large levels of PCBs have developed kidney and liver damage, but studies involving humans have not returned similar findings.

The public notice states that the contaminated debris was removed from Site 49F between October 2008 and January 2009. Following the removal, a test of the stormwater culvert that drains water from the site through Interstate 64 and toward Waller Mill Park revealed the presence of PCBs. A more thorough investigation is being conducted to determine if there is a direct threat to Williamsburg residents and the environment.

The City of Williamsburg first tested for PCBs in Waller Mill Park after a Virginia Department of Health mandate in 2000 and no PCBs were found.

In October of last year, the city was alerted to the potential presence of the chemicals by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) and retested the water. Once again, no PCBs were found. A third test was run in March. Results from that test will be available in the next few days.

Since fish consume most PCBs that enter water sources, the health department’s fact sheet lists fish consumption as one of the main ways humans are exposed to the chemicals.

Testing of fish samples in the reservoir was done along with the March PCB test. According to Michael VanAudenhove ’11, a park attendant at Waller Mill, the city has increased its attention to the water’s cleanliness.

“The city constantly tests the water,” he said. “The Environmental Protection Agency comes out; nobody has said the park should be closed or people should stop eating the fish — if there was the slightest chance the water was infected, they would take precautions.”

NAVFAC will host a public forum describing the finding and its possible effects on the area Wednesday at 7 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Williamsburg Community Building, 401 N. Boundary St.

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