Barnes air base investigates possible contamination of regional aquifer

Published: 2/7/2017 11:58:04 PM

WESTFIELD — As the Barnes Air National Guard Base prepares to conduct an investigation into possible contamination of the Barnes Aquifer that occurred on its base years ago, a regional committee charged with overseeing the aquifer has developed a sampling strategy on private wells to ensure clean drinking water in areas with potential risk.

On Tuesday, the Barnes Aquifer Protection Advisory Committee outlined five areas in Westfield for possible contamination of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and will recommend that the state Department of Environmental Protection test at least three private wells in each of the areas. While the wells are located in Westfield, they are close to the borders of Holyoke and Southampton.

There has been no contamination reported at wells in Easthampton or Southampton.

The Barnes Aquifer extends about 12 miles beneath portions of Westfield, Holyoke, Southampton and Easthampton. More than 60,000 people depend on the aquifer for drinking water.

Exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breast-fed infants, cancer, liver effects, immune effects and thyroid effects, according to the EPA.

While traces of the acids were found in wells near the air base, Smith College geosciences professor and a Barnes Aquifer Protection committee member, Bob Newton, said the spread of contamination can be difficult to follow.

Newton said the contaminants move with the water, but in an aquifer, grains of sand and gravel can cause the contaminants to disperse outward in different directions. Pumping wells can draw contaminants in, Newton said.

With the contamination of PFOS and PFOA suspected to have been caused about 30 to 40 years ago, Newton said areas at risk are unknown.

“We need to advocate for a worst-case scenario,” Newton said.

The air base investigation and private well testing are being triggered by more stringent requirements for PFOS acids levels instituted by the Environmental Protection Agency last May. Once the new requirements went into effect, Westfield removed two wells from service. After further testing, another well in Westfield was found to have traces of PFOS and PFOA exceeding the limit.

The possible cause of the higher-than-allowed limits may trace back to firefighting foam used in training at the Barnes air base from 1950 to 1987. The state DEP suspects that chemicals in the foam may have been released into the groundwater, impacting the aquifer.

In addition to firefighting foam, the chemicals are widely used in stain and water resistant coatings for fabrics and oil-resistant coating for paper products.

Barnes air base officials plan to conduct a site investigation in the spring that will include both soil and groundwater collection and laboratory analysis. On Jan. 31, the base released a plan including an outline of the investigation and identified eight potential areas of concern, but two of those areas will not be examined because they are off base.

“We understand the serious role we play in protecting our local environment and resource conservation,” 104th Fighter Wing Commander Col. James Keefe said in a news release. “We have been working with the City of Westfield, the local communities and the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C. to address the current PFC issue in Westfield since it was first identified in May.”

Representatives from MassDEP attended the Jan. 10 BAPAC meeting and updated the committee on the issue. According to the minutes, MassDEP will use state funds to pursue a program to understand the impacts on private wells.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at

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