Look past the security gates, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord hums along much like any mid-sized American city, with similar demands on its infrastructure. It has a police force and two golf courses, a hospital and public works department, and a water system that supplies more than 45,000 people.
JBLM produces 4.8 million gallons of drinking water per day. That could fill enough 5-gallon water cooler bottles to cover an entire freeway lane and stretch nearly 14 miles from Lacey to the McChord Field off-ramp.
The system has never stopped operating for failure to meet safe drinking water standards, and the base preaches transparency when it puts out its annual water quality/consumer confidence report.
“We are committed to providing you with information,” says the most recent report, published last June, “because informed customers are our best allies.”
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Those customers would be right to question why JBLM waited until last week to inform them it had ceased using three drinking water wells — a step taken over several months to meet new federal health guidelines about potentially harmful chemicals.
Of the 140 U.S. military bases tested so far, JBLM is one of six where lab results showed traces of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, above the federal advisory level, according to base spokesman Joe Piek.
The base shut down two of its 28 wells last June, after preliminary test results; it stopped drawing drinking water from a third well on Jan. 9, after final lab work was conducted.
But not until last Thursday (March 2) did JBLM officials disclose the news through press releases, Facebook posts and military command word-of-mouth.
This amounted to a needless delay for people who might want to research possible PFC exposure, consult health care providers, or track down friends and family who’ve deployed or moved away.
Mark it down as a textbook case of the Pentagon’s top-down bureaucracy. “The Army gathered test results from all its installations collectively before giving individual installations the go-ahead to notify consumers,” Piek explained in an email.
The mass drinking water testing program began last year when the Environmental Protection Agency issued an advisory for PFCs. The chemicals likely got into the environment on or near military bases through the use of a particular Air Force firefighting foam, which was discontinued at JBLM more than 20 years ago.
PFCs belong to an emerging class of contaminants, and while the science is still being developed, the unregulated man-made chemicals have been associated with conditions such as low birth weight, some cancers and thyroid disease.
Give the military credit for responding proactively to EPA guidance on these pervasive chemicals. PFCs surely abide in the environment near municipal fire stations, airports, factories and landfills. They can be found in household products and food packaging, too.
At JBLM, water samples were drawn last year from the base’s 28 wells. In one well, lab results showed chemicals just above the EPA guideline; in two others, they registered more than double and more than triple the agency’s threshold.
Granted, the advisory level assumes lifetime chemical exposure, and JBLM’s transient community makes that unlikely. But it’s still information many residents would like to have — sooner, rather than later.
If this delay in reporting water contamination sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because of what happened in Tacoma Public Schools last spring. It took a year for officials to notify families about elevated levels of lead in water fixtures at two schools, after a district employee was slow to report the results up his chain of command.
While PFCs don’t induce the same visceral dread that lead does, the chemicals are starting to attract attention in aquifers and water systems around the country.
As of last summer, the Defense Department had identified at least 2,000 potentially polluted sites, mostly on Air Force bases, according to the New York Times. In Colorado, PFC readings up to 20 times the advisory level were recorded in communities near Peterson Air Base.
On Whidbey Island, the Seattle Times reported last weekend, property owners near the Naval Air Station have received notice of high PFC levels in private wells.
JBLM has shared its lab test information with nearby county and city governments, as well as state and local health departments. It should leave no stone unturned to reach stakeholders both inside and outside the gates.
The base’s own words bear repeating: Informed customers make the best allies.
Informed neighbors do, too.