Read the full article by David Cloud, Anna Phillips, & Tony Barboza (Los Angeles Times)

“SACRAMENTO —  It was a Sunday tradition at Bethany Slavic Missionary Church. After morning services, Florin Ciuriuc joined the line of worshipers waiting to fill their jugs with gallons of free drinking water from a well on the property, a practice church leaders had encouraged.

‘I take it for my office every week,’ said Ciuriuc, a 50-year-old Romanian immigrant and a founding member of the largely Russian-speaking church, which claims 7,000 congregants.

Church leaders boasted it was the cleanest water in Sacramento, according to Ciuriuc. In fact, test results showed the water contained toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used for decades on a now-shuttered Air Force base a mile away. Church leaders say they did not understand their well was contaminated.

The church’s well is one of thousands of water sources located on and near military bases polluted with chemicals from the foam, which was used by the armed services since the 1960s.

Defense Department officials know that the chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have seeped into the groundwater underneath nearly two dozen military bases throughout the state. But the department has conducted only limited testing off base and cannot say how many civilian water sources they’ve polluted or who will pay for it.

Since 2016, when the Environmental Protection Agency classified PFAS as an ’emerging contaminant’ linked to liver cancer and other health problems, the Pentagon has found the pollutants at levels above federal health guidelines in soil and groundwater at more than 90 bases nationwide.

California has the most of any state, with contamination at 21 bases, including six where the chemicals threaten the water supply in nearby communities, according to a review of hundreds of pages of Defense Department records by the Los Angeles Times.

In Riverside County, Barstow, Orange County and Sacramento, PFAS have been detected in private wells or public water systems outside the boundaries of military installations, records show.

At Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos and Fresno Air National Guard Base, the chemicals are suspected of moving into the community water supply.

One military contractor warned in September that residents ‘using groundwater for drinking water’ near Los Alamitos ‘may potentially be exposed to migrating PFAS contamination.’ Another contractor said in March that five wells west of the Fresno airfield could be affected.

But the Pentagon has not completed off-base testing at either location, and at other California bases, leaving the full extent of the contamination unknown.

The Pentagon faces the prospect of a gigantic environmental cleanup that officials estimate could cost in excess of $2 billion and take decades to complete. The day Defense Secretary Mark Esper took office in July, he appointed a task force to oversee the Pentagon response.

Wherever they have already found PFAS in drinking water above the EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, the military has supplied bottled water, paid for filters and purchased clean water for both military personnel and civilians, officials say…

Citing limited funds from Congress for cleanup and testing, the Defense Department only acts when water sampling finds contamination levels above EPA health advisory level for two of the most common variations of PFAS.

The threshold, which was set in 2016, is nonbinding, and officials in several states have set much more stringent standards. Congress is currently debating whether to force the Trump administration to adopt an enforceable nationwide standard, a proposal the White House has said it opposes.

California regulators have few legal tools to force the Pentagon to expand its sampling to groundwater near bases.

‘We’re doing everything we can to compel the owner, the Department of Defense, to conduct the investigations, to show us it’s not a problem,’ said Doug Smith, assistant executive officer with Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which monitors groundwater at seven California bases…

‘Forever chemicals’ spread

Nationwide, the chemicals have been found at 401 current and former military bases. When testing was conducted off-base, the pollutants were found in 1 in 4 wells and water systems, according to a 2018 Pentagon report to Congress.

Among them is the well at Ruben Mendez’s home in the Inland Empire.

Mendez said he had no reason to think something was wrong with his well water until Air Force officials knocked on his door a few years ago.

“They said, ‘We spilled something, and you need to stop drinking the water for a while,’” Mendez said in an interview on the front porch of his peach-colored home.

In 1993, when the Mendez family built the ranch-style home that Ruben, 64, and his 91-year-old mother now share, they settled on property about a mile southeast of March Air Reserve Base. They had a private well dug more than 400 feet down, and for years authorities came every few months to test the water. Mendez said he attributed these visits to his home’s proximity to the base.

In 2016, after the EPA set its health advisory, officials abruptly told the Mendezes and another family nearby to stop drinking the water…

At that point, the Air Force ‘immediately contacted the two private well owners, provided them with bottled water and advised them not to use the well for any consumption purposes,’ Air Force spokesman Mark Kinkade said.

The Air Force delivered free five-gallon jugs of water to the Mendez home for more than two years. In 2018, it paid to have the house connected to the municipal water system. Ruben Mendez said he now pays $100 a month for water he used to get for free.

The toxic plume that spread from the base has also made its way into the public drinking-water system.

The Eastern Municipal Water District, which supplies a swath of the Inland Empire that is home to some 825,000 people — from Temecula to Moreno Valley and Perris to Hemet — closed one of its large supply wells in 2016 when the EPA set its new health advisory level for the chemicals…

But the chemicals had spread further south. In February, after a second well tested above California’s notification level, the district shut it down too…

In January, a new state law will mandate that customers be told if any of the chemicals are detected.

Contamination from these chemicals come from many sources, not just aircraft foam. They were widely used in commercial products like nonstick pans, waterproof clothing and food packaging.

In Southern California, a major source of the pollutants is believed to be chrome-plating factories.

Most vulnerable are mothers and young children, whose reproductive and developmental health can be altered by even tiny amounts of the chemicals being passed to fetuses during pregnancy and to nursing infants through breast milk.

Since only small amounts can be absorbed through the skin, the greatest risk of exposure is from drinking contaminated water…”