This story was first published on July 12, 2019
Another big story from 2019 was contamination of drinking water by a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS. These chemicals were once used in fire fighting foam at former military air bases in Pennsylvania. The chemicals contaminated drinking water supplies near the bases, so public water authorities installed treatment systems to provide safe water. In June, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection began a round of testing for PFAS chemicals at about 350 water systems across the state.
In December, Governor Tom Wolf’s administration said that in the initial round of testing, only one of 96 sites contained PFAS above the federal health advisory standard for PFAS chemicals–but testing will continue through the first half of 2020. This level of scrutiny is different when it comes to private wells.
Jodi Cutaiar starts every other Friday the same way: with a delivery from “The Water Guy.”
The delivery truck backs into her driveway in Sellersville, Bucks County, while her 2-year-old dog, Henre, barks wildly and paces across the front lawn. The driver parks and unloads five 51-pound boxes of bottled water onto a dolly that he wheels to her side door.
LISTEN: “Residents with PFAS-contaminated Well Water in Limbo as DEP Investigates”
Her husband, Tom, owns a trucking business and is usually out of town five days a week, so Cutaiar — an athletic but slim 5-foot-2— has to lug the boxes by herself into the basement, where she stores them beneath the stairs. When it rains, sometimes the boxes fall apart, and the one-gallon jugs of water tumble out.
Each box contains six of those jugs, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Cutaiar estimates that she, her husband, and two daughters — and yes, even Henre — go through at least four cases, or 24 gallons of water, every two weeks.
“We drink a lot of water, between cooking and everything else,” she said.
Everything else includes the water in the coffee pot, the water for washing fruits and vegetables, the water for boiling pasta — basically anything that would result in someone from her family ingesting it.
PFAS Levels Come as a Surprise
The Cutaiars have gotten these deliveries since 2017 when the DEP notified them that a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS were present in their private well water at levels above the EPA health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. The levels vary, depending on how much rain there has been, but the Cutaiars have had readings as high as 133 ppt. Some neighbors’ wells have been in the thousands.
What is unique about their contamination — and why it came as such a surprise — is that Cutaiar and her neighbors live 15 miles away from the former military air bases in Bucks and Montgomery counties that have been at the epicenter of PFAS water contamination in the region.
Those bases used PFAS-containing aqueous firefighting foam (often referred to as AFFF) in training exercises. The chemicals, which have been linked to health problems, including high cholesterol, immune deficiencies, and certain cancers, leached into groundwater and contaminated water supplies in the surrounding area.
Public water systems have since treated the water so that it is safe to drink. Those with private wells close to the bases have received bottled water, courtesy of the U.S. Navy. But Sellersville is too far from the bases for the contamination there to be the direct result of the training exercises, and also too far away to have been tested as a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation.
An Obvious Source of Contamination
It’s also unusual that Cutaiar and her neighbors know about the contamination at all. Pennsylvania is one of two states in the country that don’t regulate private wells (Alaska is the other), so homeowners are on their own to test for contaminants. Many don’t, and when they do, traditional tests look only for contaminants like arsenic, lead and bacteria — not for PFAS.
Cutaiar found out because the DEP discovered elevated PFAS 1.5 miles away in a public well — regularly scanned for a host of contaminants, including PFAS — in a development known as Ridge Run. That prompted DEP to reach out to Cutaiar and her neighbors to ask if the department could test their wells as part of its investigation. Many agreed, and that’s when the contamination came to light. So far, 12 private wells in her area have been identified with elevated PFAS.
“If this development was not here, people would still be drinking the water,” Cutaiar said, “having no idea.”
She counts Ridge Run’s proximity as a lucky twist of fate, but now that the DEP is aware of her well’s contamination, she has found herself caught in the midst of its ongoing investigation.
Cutaiar and her neighbors point to what they consider an obvious source of the contamination: a massive fire in 1986 at Bergey’s Tires. The auto and tire company has a location directly behind Cutaiar’s 1-acre property, so close that in the winter when the trees are bare, she can see the facility.
Accounts of the fire depict a blaze that raged for 20 hours with 20-foot flames and required 30 fire companies to bring it under control — including those from the former air bases in Warminster and Horsham.
“Apparently that yellow house was black,” Cutaiar said, pointing to her neighbor’s house. “Foam was sitting in all their yards back there and all up there, just sitting there for weeks apparently afterward.”
The DEP is still investigating the source of PFAS in the private wells in Sellersville and has not identified Bergey’s as the responsible party. Regional Director Patrick Patterson said the agency is trying to be responsible and not rush to conclusions.
“We want to work with what the science tells us, so that’s what we’re hoping to do by doing a thorough investigation,” Patterson said.
Providing Safe Water in the Quickest Way
Running parallel to the DEP’s investigation is its effort to provide Cutaiar and her neighbors with safe water. Water delivery is only a temporary measure. As the next step, the DEP has proposed installing filtration systems in their homes, which would take the PFAS levels down to zero.
“The quickest way to get good water to people is through this filtration system,” Patterson said. “And the most cost-effective.”
But Cutaiar and some of her neighbors don’t want filters, which break down over time and are expensive to replace, costing more than $1,000. The DEP has said it would maintain the filters for a year, but after that, the homeowners would be responsible.
And then there is the issue of disposal. Filters need to be swapped out regularly, and the used ones contain high levels of PFAS.
Cutaiar lives in U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s district, and he brought that up at a recent meeting.
“A lot of people just dispose of them in their trash cans,” Fitzpatrick said, at which point the PFAS could leach into groundwater. “It’s a public safety hazard of a whole separate degree.”
Cutaiar wants public water. But hooking up her and her 11 neighbors would cost $2 million — the entirety of the budget DEP has set aside to deal with PFAS remediation in the area. And, Patterson said, if people stopped using their wells, the PFAS plume could spread because the water is no longer being pumped out of the ground, which helps contain the contamination.
Regardless of whether Cutaiar gets a filter or public water, Patterson said she will need an environmental covenant attached to her deed, telling future owners of the property the water is contaminated.
“Especially if there was a public water system,” he said, “because then you’d have all this untreated groundwater, and you would have to tell people they couldn’t use it to water their lawn, they couldn’t use it for anything.”
Property Values and Health Concerns
That concerns Cutaiar, who has already seen her property value drop.
“I got this house appraised because we thought about an addition, and then I was like, ‘Oh. It’s not what I thought,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh right, the water, didn’t even think about that.’”
Her taxes actually went down last year — “How does that happen? That never happens.” — and a nearby house sat on the market for a good eight months before it sold at a reduced price. She put plans for her addition on hold and worries she’ll never be able to sell her house if she needs to.
Cutaiar also worries about her two young daughters, Jessica, 9, and Emily, 8. Both know more about water contamination than their ages would suggest, which puts them in the position of telling babysitters the dos and don’ts when it comes to using the water.
“We can use it in the bath,” Emily said, reciting what she might tell a sitter, “just you can’t drink it.”
At 14 months old, Emily was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare autoimmune disorder that leads to low platelet levels.
“I have to be careful if she hits her head, hits her stomach [because it could lead to] internal bleeding,” Cutaiar said.
Once she became aware of the water contamination, she wondered if that might have contributed to her daughter’s disorder.
“We don’t know,” she shrugged, frustrated as many are that the understanding of science hasn’t caught up with the ability to detect the chemicals.
Mostly, Cutaiar feels frustrated by the lack of answers and action for a situation she neither created nor knew anything about until two years ago.
“I want to move on,” she said. “I want my addition. I want this house to be finished. I want them to grow up and not worry about water.”
But for now, she continues to worry, every time she turns on the tap.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.