GREENSBORO — Residents of neighborhoods downstream from Piedmont Triad International Airport came armed with questions to a meeting Tuesday evening about testing their wells for signs of contamination by two synthetic compounds.
They wanted to know how any pollution could have occurred, who might be responsible, whether the chemicals still were in use and how the government might be able to help them if their drinking water wells are found to have excessive levels of these compounds.
“It’s too early for us to determine if there is any one responsible party for contamination,” said Jim Bateson, Superfund section chief of the N.C. Division of Waste Management. “This stuff is so ubiquitous in our environment.”
The event in the fellowship hall at Guilford College United Methodist Church drew an audience of about 45, the majority of them residents of the airport area whose wells might have some level of contamination by PFOS and PFOA.
The two chemicals are man-made, industrial compounds that manufacturers voluntarily began phasing out more than a decade ago, but which live on in such durable products as stain resistant carpet.
In addition, once they get into the environment or the human body, they are resilient and slow to dissipate.
The meeting included a presentation from government officials about the class of chemicals that includes PFOS and PFOA, the details of which were similar to what they told the Guilford County Board of Commissioners last month when they announced plans to sample more than 50 residential wells near Piedmont Triad International Airport and in the Greensboro watershed that rises nearby.
Attendees also had the chance to ask questions and they submitted about 20 on note cards that covered a wide variety of topics.
The officials tried their best to answer and encouraged those in attendance to let their wells be tested if they were among the 63 households that had received requests from local officials.
The testing coalition includes Greensboro’s water department, Guilford public health officials and the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services.
Later this month, they want to take two small samples of water from each of the selected wells throughout the watershed. They hope to pinpoint hot spots of contamination — if there are any — as well as to learn whether the two compounds and related chemicals are migrating into groundwater that supplies drinking water to well owners.
So far, response has been tepid to letters of request sent out shortly before Thanksgiving. By the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Guilford County had only received permission from 14 of the 63 well owners who had received the letters, said Ken Carter, assistant county public health director.
During the meeting, three additional home owners turned in completed forms.
Bateson said the tests aimed to find how far beyond the airport pollution had spread and whether it had traveled from streams where it is known to exist into the ground water.
But in response to a number of the written questions, Bateson and state and local officials had to say the verdict was still out. Bateson did say that any well owner whose water supply tested above known safety levels would receive bottled drinking water at no cost until a more permanent answer could be found.
Carter said Guilford public health staff would reach out to well owners who have yet to respond to the county’s initial request.
The tests are free and well owners do not need to be at home when samples are gathered. Researchers take samples from outside spigots.
PFOS has been the major focus of the investigation launched several years ago by the city Department of Water Resources after the chemical compound was found in suspiciously high amounts in Lake Brandt and at the Mitchell Water Plant during a federally mandated round of testing for such “perfluorinated alkyl” substances.
Since then, city officials have learned that levels of PFOS and PFOA vary unpredictably from their normal status of well below “health advisory” levels to occasionally spiking above.
The unregulated compounds are considered “emerging contaminants” with potential consequences for human health that scientific researchers are only beginning to fully understand.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying them in greater depth with an eye to setting enforceable limits under federal safe drinking water laws.
PFOS was heavily used in the airport area as a key ingredient in firefighting foams relied upon by PTI fire crews and other fire departments, both in training exercises and in fighting fires in the neighboring industrial area.