Town officials are raising concerns about the presence of “forever chemicals” in Harpswell Cove. (PAUL PLUMMER PHOTO)
The town of Harpswell is raising concerns about the discovery of “forever chemicals” in mussels from Harpswell Cove and the potential for a cleanup operation at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station to flush more chemicals downstream.
The Brunswick Naval Air Station closed in 2010, but some of the chemicals used there belong to a suite of chemicals that persist for long periods of time. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” come from a variety of sources, including industrial coatings used for non-stick surfaces and waterproofing, along with a type of firefighting foam that was used in airplane hangars on the base.
According to the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS pose a variety of risks to human health, including increases in cancer rates, developmental defects during pregnancy, liver damage, compromised immunity and effects on thyroid function.
After the base closed, the U.S. Navy was charged with cleaning up and remediating the impacts of contaminants that are present in the soil and groundwater as a result of base operations. In keeping with national standards for base restoration, a Restoration Advisory Board was established to gather input from the community.
The board has representatives from Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell, along with the Navy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment, a group focused on human health impacts. Harpswell’s Board of Selectmen appointed Paul Ciesielski, a retired geologist who serves on the Harpswell Conservation Commission, as the town’s representative.
The site of concern is part of the base’s Picnic Pond-Mare Creek system that ultimately flows into Harpswell Cove. Contaminants have been found in Picnic Pond and two nearby ponds, all three of which are part of a Navy remediation and restoration project set to begin this spring.
Harpswell Cove has productive shellfish flats, although poor water quality has closed the upper portion of the cove for several years. The lower portion, along the east side of the cove, is under a conservation closure. The town of Brunswick is seeding the area with quahogs, a species growing in value in Maine, in hopes of future harvests.
Good water quality is critical for the survival of this seed and the restoration of wild shellfish to the area. Both towns have expressed their concerns to the Restoration Advisory Board regarding the importance of proper cleanup and monitoring of upland areas to ensure those activities don’t pollute Harpswell Cove.
Ciesielski, Harpswell’s representative to the Restoration Advisory Board, worked with Brunswick’s representative, retired Bowdoin College biochemistry professor David Page, to collect ribbed mussel samples from the head of Harpswell Cove. They found PFAS associated with firefighting foam in mussels at this site, according to a report authored by Page.
The Department of Environmental Protection has also taken samples in Harpswell Cove, but has focused on areas further downstream, according to Jim Stahlnecker, a biologist at the DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality. The DEP samples have analyzed blue mussels and soft-shell clams rather than ribbed mussels, because ribbed mussels are concentrated closer to the head of the cove.
The DEP tested for 13 PFAS compounds in blue mussels and detected very low levels of one, perfluorooctane sulfonamide, at two of the four sampling sites. The tests found none in soft-shell clam samples that were taken near the ribbed mussel sampling sites.
Stahlnecker, who has reviewed the sampling by Page and Ciesielski, said that either the DEP or the Navy will continue to collect bivalve samples from Harpswell Cove, as testing improves and more information becomes known.
Ciesielski and Page’s discovery has raised concern from the Harpswell Conservation Commission about not just Harpswell Cove, but also the area south to Spruce Cove. If water in the cove is contaminated, it has the potential to spread throughout a much wider area.
Ciesielski presented these concerns to the Harpswell Conservation Commission in early January and suggested that the commission take the matter to the Board of Selectmen.
In a letter to the Harpswell Board of Selectmen, commission Chair Mary Ann Nahf expressed concern that a storm or excessive snowmelt could cause an accidental discharge of contaminated sediment into Harpswell Cove from Picnic Pond while dredging and removal operations are underway.
Kristine Logan is executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which manages the redevelopment of the base. Logan said that the Navy has “put into place several kinds of controls to ensure that removing the contaminants from the property will be done in a way that there is practically no chance of it spreading.”
She called the $6 million project “very well thought out and engineered” and said that the Navy is required to clean up all contaminants at the site before transferring the property to MRRA. She encouraged people to contact her with questions or concerns at 207-798-6512 or email@example.com.
Nahf asked the selectmen and the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee to take up the matter with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Nahf suggested that the town advise DMR of the cleanup project and ask the department to include PFAS in its water quality testing in Harpswell Cove.
“In view of the longevity of the chemicals, it is really important to monitor downstream after the disturbance and removal of the contaminated sludge to be sure the PFAS didn’t migrate downstream into current working shellfish beds,” Nahf said.
Harpswell Harbor Master and Marine Resources Administrator Paul Plummer agreed to send the letter and coordinate with the town of Brunswick to express Harpswell’s concerns.
A spokesperson for the Department of Marine Resources acknowledged that the department had received the letter. He said the department is “doing a thorough review of the situation” and plans to respond soon.
Susan Olcott, of Brunswick, is director of operations for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. She has a weekly column, “Intertidal,” in The Times Record, and writes for Maine Women Magazine.
A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.