by Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
The U.S. Navy allowed visitors into the water treatment plant at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS) on June 14, for the first time since 2003. Plant Operator Bob Phinney and Base Caretaker (civilian Navy representative) Bob Leclerc accompanied approximately eight civilians on a tour of the facility.
The Navy has identified 18 separate sites on the former base as having significant contamination. The September 2011 report by Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment (BACSE) states, “While 18 sites might seem like a lot, they do not include the entire array of areas at NASB having known or potential contamination problems. For example, petroleum products, such as gasoline and jet fuel, are specifically excluded from Superfund [the 18 contaminated sites with remediation plans or monitoring] and so are not included…”
Of particular interest to residents is a 71-acre site called the Eastern Plume. This area has significant groundwater contamination. The water treatment plant has been in operation since 1995, extracting groundwater and treating it to remove chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOC), dioxane and other chemicals. These chemicals may pose a significant threat to commercial fisheries and adjacent homeowners’ wells through groundwater migration. VOCs are ground-water contaminants of concern, because of human toxicity, and because of a tendency for some compounds to persist in and migrate with groundwater to drinking water. For example, dioxane is a versatile solvent, able to dissolve many inorganic compounds.
The 3,094 acres of property within the BNAS was contaminated between 1945 and 1979. Three of the identified sites were used as landfills during the designated period. Other areas were used for the disposal of various acids, caustics, solvents and building materials, including asbestos, and used for fire-training purposes, according to a United States Environmental Protection Agency report from 2011. At the time, approximately 3,000 people lived within a mile of the site areas. The report goes on to say Harpswell cove, a valuable commercial fishery, was subject to potential groundwater contamination, which poses health risks if ingested.
According to the report, “An elementary school, a college, and a hospital are located with in one mile of the western base boundary. Area surface water is used for recreation, irrigation, and commercial fishing.”
Since the mid 1990s, a remediation plan has been put into place, removing much of the contaminated soil and treating groundwater at the Eastern Plume site. After almost 20 years of treating the groundwater, there are still contaminants present. Phinney said it is difficult to determine how much longer the water will need to be treated. The initial estimates were between 35 and 75 years. It was mentioned by tour members that it could possibly take 100 years or more for the contaminants to be removed completely.
The water treatment plant uses a system of first removing solids from water. The water is then sent to a piece of equipment that breaks down bonds between chemicals, such as dioxane, and water with the use of oxygen. The chemicals are burned and disposed of. After this process, the water is sent through carbon as a “polish” to complete the purification process. According to Phinney, the water now meets federal environmental standards. It is almost as good as drinking water. This purified water is released back into the ground, into an area called the galley where it will disperse.
The water treatment plant is self-contained, Phinney said. Extracted sludge, such as iron, cannot escape back into the ground in the case of an accident, as safeguards are in place to prevent this. A tank to catch waste exists in the plant to keep spills from leaking outside.
According to Leclerc, certified companies hired by the Navy do testing of soil and water. However, there are no independent third-party studies.
Leclerc said certain parcels of land would still not be able to be excavated due to chemicals in the soil. He said excavation could lead to uncovering such things as petroleum products and solvents. The water might be contaminated, as well as the soil. However, he said, the surface area could be developed for sports fields and similar uses.
According to the BACSE report, “Some surface water bodies on the base, such as the Picnic Pond, show the impact of polluted runoff over time. Once the Naval Air Station closure is complete, the Navy will no longer be responsible for surface water (i.e. storm water) management on the base. As of December 2010, the Navy terminated its long-standing surface water testing program.”
According to promotional material, BACSE strives to ensure that public notification is ongoing and that the U.S. Navy and the federal government continue to take responsible action to mitigate the environmental risks that have been created at BNAS. The BACSE asks the public to attend meetings of the Restoration Advisory Board, which convenes every few months. The last meeting was on Thursday, June 14, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Brunswick Town Council Chambers.
For more information, visit community.curtislibrary.com/BACSE.