Prove your humanity

by Oliver Morrison, PublicSource

This story comes from PublicSource, a nonprofit digital-first news organization that delivers public-service reporting and analysis in the Pittsburgh region.

Neville Township residents may have been drinking water contaminated with toxic levels of PFAS chemicals for as long as a month, township officials said at a working board meeting Thursday.

Further immediate risk has been removed, according to township and state officials. But township and Allegheny County officials said they don’t know what chances there are of a similar accident happening again to the more than 1,000 Neville residents or in other municipalities across the county.

The Neville Township board met Nov. 7 to discuss potential PFAS contamination in the drinking water. Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

Thousands of scholarly articles have associated PFAS chemicals with a laundry list of potential health consequences, including elevated cholesterol, liver dysfunction, disruption of the immune system and kidney cancer. “It does accumulate in your body and the standards are getting tighter and tighter,” Ned Mitrovich, the township engineer, told the board Thursday.

Alert Issued Oct. 22

Neville Township customers were told not to consume any tap water between Oct. 22 and Oct. 25. During that time, the township gave away free bottled water to residents. The alert was issued on Oct. 22 after workers discovered earlier that day that 2,000 gallons of liquid had passed from an industrial facility on the island back into the town’s water supply, according to township officials. As much as 600 gallons of the backflow could have been a firefighting foam that contains toxic PFAS chemicals, according to Mitrovich.

Initial tests by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] on Oct. 24, and a more complete test by Neville Township on Oct. 25, revealed that the level of PFAS contamination in the water at that point was below the health advisory for drinking water set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Residents were informed then that it was safe to drink the water again.

The tests results were provided to a Neville resident who forwarded them to PublicSource. Carla Ng, a scientist who studies PFAS chemicals at the University of Pittsburgh, said the results show that, while there is some PFAS in the water, it is currently below even the most stringent standards set by states like Vermont and New Jersey. The lab tested for six of the most commonly found PFAS chemicals, including the two with the most research showing harmful health effects PFOS and PFOA.

Gregory Mundell, a member of the board of township commissioners, asked whether residents could have been drinking contaminated water prior to the testing. “We found out on the 22nd,” he said. “Many people have asked me could it have been in our lines prior to that? And if so, how long?”

Mitrovich said workers discovered the possible contamination during a monthly meter reading on Oct. 22 and it was impossible to say at what point, over the previous month, the contamination might have occurred. It could’ve happened all at once, the day before the testing, he said, or “it could’ve come out very slowly over a period of 30 days. We really can’t answer that.”

Jenifer Mihalyi, one of the two Neville residents who attended the meeting, said this worried her. “That was the one thing that struck me the most, that 30 days,” she said. “And I thought the people, they need to know this, they need to know this.”

A Backflow Valve Malfunction

The incident occurred because of a backflow valve malfunction at Watson Standard, a coating and adhesives company located on Neville Island. The company uses an emergency fire suppression system with firefighting foam that is designed to be used on alcohol-based fires from the solvents they make, which can be difficult to put out otherwise. The fire suppression system is hooked up directly to the drinking water. If the system was functioning properly, the water would mix with the foam only during an emergency but it would not be possible for the foam to flow backward into the town’s water supply.

“The fact that nobody has named the polluter makes me seriously concerned that the township is putting corporate interests above the public’s interest.”

The name of the company was released publicly for the first time during Thursday’s working board meeting, more than two weeks after the incident. Township officials said the company’s commercial water was still shut off as it worked to install a valve that would prevent future backflows. Watson Standard didn’t respond to requests for comment by publication time.

Rumors had been circulating in Neville about which company was responsible. Amanda Gillooly, a Neville resident, complained in a written comment submitted to the board about the lack of transparency.

“The fact that nobody has named the polluter makes me seriously concerned that the township is putting corporate interests above the public’s interest,” Gillooly wrote.

Challenges for Small Towns

Neville’s response raises questions about how other small municipalities would be able to handle PFAS contamination on their own. Mitrovich said it was the first time he responded to a contamination so potent that it is measured in parts per trillion. Because PFAS chemicals are in so many consumer products, he said, the township had to buy special gloves and soap and avoid wearing cologne or using fluoride toothpaste, to avoid contaminating the samples. 

Township workers had to drive several hours to Canton, Ohio, to pick up the necessary bottles to test for PFAS because they couldn’t find anyone locally who had them on hand. They collected water samples from three locations where they thought it may have accumulated. Once the samples were collected, they were put on ice and driven to a testing facility in Lancaster. The tests, which can take weeks, were expedited. Mitrovich didn’t remember where they got the ice to keep the samples cold but he knew that it couldn’t come from a plastic bag because that could also be contaminated. 

Neville Township manager Jeanne Creese and engineer Ned Mitrovich made a presentation to the township board on Nov. 7 about the potential for PFAS contamination in the town’s water. Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

Jeanne Creese, the township manager, said she was invoicing Watson Standard for the additional bottled water and drinking water that Neville taxpayers had to purchase, she said, but was largely happy with how responsive the company had been. 

That doesn’t mean we are not upset about the incident they caused,” she said. 

A New Kind of Contamination

The Neville water supply shutdown comes at a time of growing concern about PFAS contamination across Pennsylvania. 

In September 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf formed a special task force to determine how the state should approach the PFAS problem. The DEP is testing more than 300 water systems across the state that are considered most likely to be contaminated. The state hasn’t yet identified specific water systems but it is expected to release the first results of its tests in the next couple of weeks, according to DEP officials.

The DEP has so far confirmed 25 sites of PFAS contamination in the state. The sites include two military bases near the Pittsburgh International Airport.

PublicSource reported in August that the Pittsburgh International Airport property is likely to be contaminated by PFAS as well. Former airport firefighters say they dumped firefighting foam, similar to the foam in the Neville backflow, onto the ground and into nearby streams for decades.

Because PFAS chemicals are water soluble and don’t break down, water systems can become contaminated for long periods of time with a relatively small amount of firefighting foam. For example, state environmental officials in Rhode Island attributed contamination of a local water supply to as little as 5 gallons of firefighting foam.

Neville officials aren’t sure where the firefighting foam that was released into its water supply ended up.

Pennsylvania is considering lowering its health advisory to a level considered safer by some toxicologists. Several states, including Michigan, New Jersey and Vermont, have already lowered their standards for the amount of PFAS chemicals considered safe for drinking water. If Pennsylvania lowers its standard, there could be additional requirements for Neville to notify residents about the potential health consequences or for the DEP to impose fines on the company responsible.

Alerting Residents

Once Neville officials learned of the potential contamination on Oct. 22, workers and volunteers went door to door to notify residents of the problem and called residents on its reverse 911 system. Volunteer firefighters handed out free bottled water from city reserves. The township ordered additional drinking water for containers and more pallets of bottled water from Sam’s Club and delivered the water to residents who said they couldn’t travel to the fire station for water on their own. 

After learning of the possible contamination, Mitrovich said, a top official from the DEP called and sent out a team the next day. “When they arrived Wednesday, they arrived with five personnel,” he told the board. “It wasn’t one person, it was five.”

Creese said some residents complained to her about how sending firefighters to homes scared residents unnecessarily.

Charles Dolgos, an Amazon delivery driver, who lives on Neville Island, said the township did a good job notifying residents. “My parents live on the other end of the island. My mom gave me a heads-up before they came,” he told PublicSource last week. “They were there within 15 minutes letting us know what’s going on.”

The Neville Township board discussed the water emergency from two weeks ago at a Nov. 7 meeting. Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

Dave Kerr, the volunteer fire chief, told PublicSource last week that the volunteer firefighters limited people to one case of bottled water per day and gave out a total of 720 cases of water. They made an additional 2,500 gallons of potable water available for people to put in containers during the water advisory. 

Creese said she stayed at the municipal building for 24 hours in the immediate aftermath of the incident and received several late night phone calls from concerned residents. One resident told Creese that she “got up at 4:30 in the morning and rinsed my spoon off and saw this water notice and asked, ‘Am I going to die?’” Creese told the board. 

“I’m not qualified to answer that but I don’t want you to take something to induce vomiting,” she said she responded.

Creese told the board she personally isn’t worried about the health risks of firefighting foam. “I was a firefighter in HAZMAT for 15 years, and we were covered in this stuff,” she said. “I don’t stay awake at night worrying about this.” 

Creese said she told residents to take health concerns to their doctors. Mitrovich said many doctors probably wouldn’t even know what to recommend because PFAS chemicals are so new. 

Neville residents were notified on Oct. 25 online, by phone and was posted on the municipal building that the water was safe to drink after test results showed PFAS contamination was below the EPA's health advisory level. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Neville residents were notified on Oct. 25 online, by phone and by a posting on the municipal building that the water was safe to drink after test results showed PFAS contamination was below the federal health advisory level. Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

There are other commercial firefighting systems across Allegheny County but it’s not clear which ones are hooked up to drinking water supplies, Matt Brown, chief of county emergency services, wrote in an email. 

“In most cases, fire protection systems connecting to potable water supplies require a double backflow preventer to avoid this type of incident from happening,” Brown wrote. “This is a local code enforcement and water authority specific issue that each of them would need to answer.”

The malfunctioning backflow prevention equipment at Watson Standard was inspected prior to the incident, Creese said. “They were following procedures but between the annual inspection and that time something occurred,” she said.

Creese did not respond to six emails and phone calls from PublicSource over a two-week period about the incident. Before entering an executive session on Thursday evening, Creese said she didn’t have time to answer questions from the media and requested any questions to be emailed to her.

Mitrovich said the new kind of valve being installed at Watson Standard (a reduced pressure zone backflow preventer) should prevent future problems. The company doesn’t have functioning fire suppression while it’s being installed, he said.

Mitrovich said that, while this is the first time in 25 years he’s had to deal with this issue, there are other fire suppression systems hooked up to Neville’s water supply. He said he didn’t know what the risks were of something like this happening again.

“It’s tough to say at this point but we are in the process of doing an evaluation of that,” he said after the meeting.