Tests for PCBs reveal no problems

Efforts to prohibit Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) chemicals from entering the reservoir at Waller Mill Park have so far been successful.

Naval engineers, chemists and consultants working at Camp Peary, the site of a PCB leak that has threatened to contaminate the City of Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary’s water supply, hosted a public forum Wednesday to display their findings and discuss their plans to continue studying the site.

The city has tested the water for PCBs three times since October. The most recent test, conducted in March, yielded no evidence of the chemicals.

“We’ve tested the raw water that enters [Waller Mill’s water purification] plant and the finished water that leaves the plant,” Dan Clayton, Williamsburg’s Director of Public Works and Utilities, said. “In both cases, we did not find the water was affected.”

The plant, which takes water from Waller Mill reservoir and purifies it for drinking, is located over a mile and a half from the drainage site in which PCBs were detected last year. Clayton said that if PCBs were in the water, they would have already reached the plant.

“This has been going on for some time, and we’ve had lots of rain water,” Clayton said. “If they were there, we would have found them by now.”

The general public was first alerted to the threat of PCBs entering the water supply April 2 through a public notice issued by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), but officials have known the problem existed for quite some time.

According to the public notice, contaminated debris were removed from an abandoned swimming pool at Camp Peary’s Site 49F between October 2008 and January 2009. Following the removal, an
environmental investigation of the stormwater culvert that drains water from the site through Interstate 64 and toward Waller Mill Park revealed the presence of PCBs in the soil and sediment of the drain.

Environmental investigations are currently taking place at 11 sites on the Camp Peary property.

Three of those sites, 49F, 53 and 53A, are located on the western edge of the property, which is separated from Waller Mill Park by the interstate.

While tests have found PCBs at Site 49F, there is no evidence that the other two sites are currently in danger of leaking chemicals into the Waller Mill property.

“We tested other areas surrounding the drainage path, and there is no evidence that any [other chemicals are] leaking into the water,” Walter Bell, NAVFAC project manager for Waller Mill, said. “All tests from other drains have found nothing.”

Despite this, Bell stressed that NAVFAC is not at the end of its investigation.

“Additional study is required,” Bell said. “We are going to study the sediments in the tributary, water samples, benthic organisms in the sediment and fish in the water to determine if there is a risk to the food chain and to human consumption.”

The study will be conducted by NAVFAC with the help of environmental consultants from engineering firm CH2M Hill, as well as representatives from the City of Williamsburg and the Virginia Department of Health.

According to Jamie Butler, Site 49F project manager for CH2M Hill, more testing is necessary to determine if the area is completely free of chemicals.

“We have to make sure we get the right samples and do the right analysis,” Butler said. “It’s a process.”

Butler expects the additional testing to commence this summer, with results being presented by the end of the year.

The exact medical effects of PCBs on humans are unknown. Odorless and tasteless, PCBs are manmade chemicals, whose production ceased in 1977 after unnatural levels began to accumulate in the environment.

Ed Corl, a chemist with the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the data on PCBs show that they can cause skin irritation and acne in humans, but their effects are more damaging to animals.

Animals that have been exposed to large levels of PCBs have developed kidney and liver damage. Studies involving humans have not returned such findings.

Corl said that a common misconception about PCBs is that they are carcinogenic.

“There is no evidence of PCBs causing cancer in humans,” Corl said. “Plus, at the levels we are dealing with at [the Waller Mill] site, it would take years to see any effects in humans.”

Despite this, the city plans to remain diligent in checking the water supply for PCBs.

“Williamsburg is planning on checking for the chemicals once a month,” Patricia McMurray, the risk assessment project manager for the Virginia Department of Health’s investigation into Waller Mill, said.

“The health department recommended quarterly checks, but the city wants to go above and beyond that.”

While many Williamsburg residents attended the forum to learn more about the potential health risks involved, Stephen Dronfield ’12 came because of his broader interest in the case.

“I’m a geology major and this is a real-life case study,” he said. “I’m not worried about the water though. They’ve tested it a whole bunch of times and have found no problems.”

That sentiment was echoed by Corl, who has been working on the Waller Mill project since the cleanup of Site 49F began.

“There is no problem currently with the water,” Corl said. “Would I eat the fish? Absolutely, but we are being safe.”


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