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Sumter residents meet with Shaw Air Force Base to discuss concerns about water contamination

Cherryvale residents met with Shaw Air Force Base to talk about the "forever chemicals," known as PFAS, in the groundwater due to training exercises in the 1970s.

SUMTER, S.C. — Sumter residents living near Shaw Air Force Base are concerned about groundwater contamination. On Monday evening, the Restoration Advisory Board hosted a meeting to connect with residents, listen to their concerns and present information on how it's mitigating and accessing environmental impacts.

The base sits west of downtown Sumter. Just across Broad Street is the Cherryvale neighborhood, where residents are seeing effects from old training exercises during the 1970s.

The groundwater wells are now testing with levels of  per– and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. These are man-made chemicals that affect our environment through impacted water and air. 

"We've had pure drinking water here, all my life," Cherryvale resident Bob John shares. 

Johnson has lived in Cherryvale and used the well in his backyard to get groundwater for free since the early 1960s. Now, he's resorted to bottled water as the Sumter community’s groundwater is contaminated with these “forever chemicals."

"My general concerns are what it's doing to people’s health now, what it's going do to people's health in the future," Johnson tells me. "What it’s done to our property values."

Asking these questions is why residents showed up to Monday’s annual Restoration Advisory Board meeting. The meeting started with a presentation on what Shaw Air Force Base is doing to mitigate and access the environmental damage, which came from firefighting foam used in exercises in the 1970s. Now, the chemicals used in that foam are seeping into the ground, affecting communities outside of the base.

"There are so many wells and we're so adamant about trying to get into the community, off the air force base, to get wells to test to give us better models to find out how it's acting underground," Colonel Matthew Davis with Shaw explains about the 250 wells have been tested so far.

Representatives with the base say they’re still trying to draw a line to figure out the area that’s being affected — both how wide it is — and how deep it goes.

"It's difficult to complete testing on water aquifers that are at different levels below the surface of the ground. So to test the certain areas, the aquifer moves differently based on how much rain we get, how much runoff there is, and so it's an extremely complex problem," Colonel Matthew Davis, the 20th mission support group commander, says. "We're trying to figure out where it's moving and how the aquifer is moving...why it's moving, where it's moving."

An aquifer is a layer of rock under the ground, which holds water that can be extracted using a well.

"I just want someone who can tell me if I can grow my vegetables in you know my garden in the ground. I pray I put everything in raised beds now. I have fruit trees, I have muscadine, I have blueberry bushes," Cherryvale resident Cathy Kirby explains. "Is it safe to eat those because those are planted in the ground?"

Kirby and her neighbor, Darla Greenwald, say after the meeting, they’re still left with lots of questions that aren’t answered. Davis says that’s because not enough is known about PFAS and PFOA, since there aren’t many long-term studies. Davis says the solution is to contact national representatives.

"We'll work with the local community to help them contact their congressmen and their senators and see how they can get them involved," Davis shares.

"We definitely need somebody to represent us," Kirby and Greenland say. "Who’s got our side?"

Davis telling me it should be a joint effort.

"I don't think it's an us versus them. Shaw Air Force Base is part of the Sumter community. I don't think that the air force base, especially the members of the air force and army and marine corps that are on Shaw Air Force Base, should be considered as anything other than Sumter citizens," Davis says. "90% of the folks that work on Shaw Air Force Base live off of Shaw Air Force Base, they live in the community. We are Sumter."

Shaw is currently delivering bottled water to residents with well water that’s testing for high levels of the chemicals. It’s also offering to connect qualifying residents with High Hills Rural Water Company. Shaw says it will cover the initial cost, but residents are expected to pay the monthly water bill if they choose to get High Hills installed.

Sumter County Council's James McCain and Carlton Washington were in attendance. Washington voiced his concerns during the meeting, asking the Shaw representatives to facilitate a conversation with national congressional representatives and Sumter residents to get more answers and enact future change.

Shaw Air Force Base representatives said that request, as well as others raised during the meeting, are added to their "action items" list, which a team will discuss.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently trying to determine how to regulate the amount of PFAS that's deemed safe in drinking water. To send a public comment to the EPA, you can visit its website EPA.gov. The agency is taking public comment until May 30.

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