Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Forever Chemicals' have forced the shut down of several public water wells

A pond on Cape Cod. PFAS was found in six watersheds in the region.
Liz Lerner
A pond on Cape Cod. Hyannis, Chatham, Mashpee, Falmouth are among the towns that have had to temporarily close down wells because of PFAS contamination.

The presence of PFAS has become a recurring headline locally — from municipal water systems detecting the so-called “forever chemicals,” to small airports having to pay for the treatment of private wells because of contamination.

These are man-made substances that were used in household items like nonstick products, packaging for some foods, and the one we often hear about is fire-fighting foam.

Airports have used these foams because can contain fast spreading fires, and fire departments still use them.

They’re called forever chemicals because they seem to be present everywhere, even in the food we eat and in our bodies. They can seep into groundwater. And they’ve been linked to health problems, including some cancers.

Several contaminates have led to the temporary closure of municipal water wells.

A contamination site in Barnstable has been described as one of the worst in the state. There are a number of sites that have likely contaminated the groundwater in Barnstable, including the Cape Cod Gateway Airport. Also private septic tanks that leak into the ground water likely contribute.

The major contributor is an old firefighting training academy, where PFAS foams. Three wells in Hyannis were shut down because of the PFAS.

Filters have since been put on the wells, but they are still in the beginning phases of cleaning up the contamination from the academy. They’ll have to remove contaminated soil so that it won’t leak into the groundwater.

At the same time, Hyannis is looking to add new wells to meet growing demand. And, a recent study found that in the best locations in town for those wells, there is PFAS present. In other words, the contaminant is so ubiquitous in Hyannis, they are essentially looking at areas with the least amount of PFAS for their wells.

In Mashpee, PFAS was first detected in a public well about 5 years, and eventually in two public wells in Mashpee and one in Falmouth were shut down. Several private homeowners also had contamination, and the base provided free bottled water.

All three of the municipal wells were taken offline.

The PFAS comes from the use of firefighting foams on Joint Base Cape Cod.

The Mashpee water district had threatened to sue the base. They estimate that treating their two public wells could cost about 8 million dollars, but they didn’t get any promises for reimbursement.

After almost 5 years — with pressure from congressman Bill Keating and Senator Ed Markey — the Air Force says they’ve agreed to pay for the cleanup.

Chatham has to shut down two wells as well. And that's been during a drought this summer. Water levels dropped below concerning levels several times this summer.

Most of the wells in Chatham do not have PFAS contamination and remain open, and town officials say the water is safe to drink.

But, the town has since enacted a stringent outdoor watering ban. You’re actually not allowed to water your lawn, gardens or car.

The town is holding a special town meeting on October 23. The idea is to fund the treatment of PFAS contamination in those two wells, but also build two new wells.

The town is asking for almost 5 Million dollars at the town meeting.

The difference in Chatham, they don’t know where the PFAS came from. It’s not the airport, and they don’t have a county fire training academy. They are still looking for the source.

On Nantucket, several private wells were contaminated with PFAS over state drinking water standards. That’s coming from Nantucket Memorial Airport.

The airport has since given some of those residents bottled water, and put filters at some homes too.

But that’s cost about $5 million dollars.

The airport is actually going after the manufacturers of PFAS. In a lawsuit, they listed some two dozen companies including DuPont, 3M, Tyco and several other big names.

The attorney representing the Airport, Hank Naughton, with Napoli Shkolnik, says that he’s representing a few other groups looking to recoup some of their losses from the same companies.

But Naughton says he’s been in talks with dozens of other groups. They haven’t filed a lawsuit yet, but they are considering it. But the attorney says that there are going to be a lot more of these cases in Massachusetts, which has some of the strictest standards for PFAS contamination in the country.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.