- David Thomas Roberts
PFAS in the Spring Creek and Bald Eagle Creek Watersheds
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS chemical
compounds, were detected in surface waters across Pennsylvania during a survey by the
United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Protection (PADEP) in 2019. PFAS was found in surface waters of Central PA including in
Spring Creek, Bald Eagle Creek, Little Juniata and Juniata Rivers, Susquehanna River West
Branch, Clearfield Creek, and Beech Creek.
What is PFAS?
PFAS is a large group of chemical compounds made up of fluorinated carbon chains with an
attached head consisting of a sulfate, carboxylate, or other chemical structure. Most people will recognize Teflon, the cooking pan lining, as one of the first PFAS compounds developed for commercial use. Since the introduction of Teflon in the 1940’s there have been thousands upon thousands of PFAS compounds developed for commercial and industrial use. PFAS compounds come in many forms and have become a component of modern devices and consumer products used every day in virtually every home and workplace in the USA.
PFAS Compounds In Everyday Products
Toxicity of PFAS
PFAS compounds Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)
are now recognized as cancer causing toxic chemicals that have been banned in the United
States. However, PFOA and PFOS were used for decades in many industrial and consumer
products and in fire fighting foam. PFOA and PFOS remain as long term contamination in the environment.
The chemical properties that made PFAS so useful in our modern world have also made
certain PFAS compounds such as PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, and new poorly studied “GenX” PFAS
compounds toxic to human health. PFAS compounds are now recognized as ubiquitous
“forever” chemical contaminants of great concern. PFAS fluorinated carbon-chain chemical
compounds can have cumulative toxic exposure effects to human health and to natural
biological systems including aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals. PFAS are impacting
human health, surface waters, agriculture products, fishing, and drinking water.
Actions to Control PFAS Contamination
Governor Wolf established a Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Team in 2018 by Pennsylvania Executive Order 2018-08 to help address public health and environmental health threats from PFAS in our water, soil, air, foods, and consumer products.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lifetime health advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water were updated in June 2022. The new levels are 0.004 ppt for PFOA, 0.02 ppt for PFOS, 10 ppt for GenX PFAS, and 2000 ppt for PFBS.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) is proposing maximum contaminant levels of 14 ppt for PFOA and 18 ppt for PFOS in drinking water.
Agencies including PADEP, EPA, US Department of Defense, and the US Department of Agriculture are investigating the effects of PFAS, the need to eliminate toxic forms of PFAS, and the need to mitigate existing PFAS contamination.
PFAS Contamination Sites in the USA
PFAS Investigations in Centre County
In 2019 the USGS conducted a statewide surface water survey for PFAS in Pennsylvania. The USGS Survey sampled 178 PADEP surface water quality network (WQN) sites for PFAS compounds. PFAS was found in Spring Creek, Bald Eagle Creek, and many other surface waters across PA.
PADEP began investigating for PFAS in Centre County and conducted well water testing for PFAS contamination in Benner Township adjacent to the University Park Airport. PADEP’s Hazardous Waste Management Division completed the Benner Township Hazardous Waste Act Investigation in 2019 followed by the PADEP Benner Township PFAS Investigation GTAC7-4-106, Due Diligence Summary Report in June 2021.
Penn State University conducted a Limited PFAS Soil Investigation at University Park Airport (UNV), Meade & Hunt, Inc.
PADEP is conducting ongoing PFAS investigations in Benner Township.
Benner Township residents affected by PFAS toxicity are requesting expanded testing for PFAS. Concerned neighbors, local environmental groups, and wildlife conservationists are calling for testing of biosolids and wastewater in Centre County’s Spring Creek watershed and for the involvement of the EPA. Families in the Big Hollow area adjacent to the University Park Airport are concerned about possible negative health effects from PFAS contamination in their drinking water and are seeking mitigation of PFAS in their well water.
Sources of PFAS Contamination
The use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) containing PFAS for fire fighting tests at military and commercial airports and other firefighting organizations and the production and use of PFAS since the 1940’s has resulted in toxic levels of PFAS in the environment.
The PADEP Benner Township PFAS Investigation GTAC7-4-106, Due Diligence Summary
Report indicates that a primary source of PFAS contamination in Benner Township originated from University Park Airport runoff of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) containing PFAS used during fire-fighting equipment tests required by the Federal Aviation Administration. AFFF foam used for emergency fire-fighting at major airports must meet US Military Specifications (Mil-Specs). Unfortunately, the only AFFF that currently meets Mil-Spec contains toxic PFAS chemicals.
The use of AFFF during training at airports is no longer required by the FAA however it is still required to be used during actual fire emergencies. Any use of AFFF containing PFAS must be contained as a hazardous waste spill.
Additional sources of PFAS in Centre County may include PFAS from solid waste disposal systems, wastewater disposal systems, biosolids, consumer products, local firefighting training sites, and industrial use.
Photo of firefighting emergency training using AFFF containing PFAS.
PFAS Cycles through the Environment Into Homes, Farms, Ground Waters, and Surface Waters
PFAS in the Spring Creek and Bald Eagle Creek Fisheries
PFAS was found by the USGS in surface water samples from Spring Creek and Bald Eagle
Creek in 2019. The source of this PFAS contamination has not been determined however the
PADEP Benner Township PFAS Investigation GTAC7-4-106, Due Diligence Summary Report
considered the use of AFFF at the University Park Airport to be a potential source of PFAS in
Spring Creek. Further study is needed to determine local PFAS sources in order to mitigate any ongoing flow of PFAS into the surface waters of Central PA.
Bio-accumulation and Bio-concentration of PFAS
The high surfactant property of PFAS in AFFF makes the foam and its chemical components
readily transportable as runoff to surface waters. PFAS chemicals do not easily break down in
the environment and are not easily eliminated from organisms. PFAS bio-accumulates and
bio-magnifies in organisms resulting in magnitude increases of PFAS in natural biological
systems. A few parts per trillion of PFAS can rapidly concentrate to parts per million resulting in highly toxic levels of PFAS in both aquatic and terrestrial animals and in agricultural products.
Bioaccumulation of PFAS
Bio-concentration of PFAS
2019 USGS PFAS Data for Spring Creek
Near Fisherman’s Paradise Cold Water Fishery
Spring Creek Sample Site - Barns Lane and Spring Creek Road
2019 USGS PFAS Data for Bald Eagle Creek
Curtin Village Access Warm Water Fishery
Bald Eagle Creek Sample Site - Curtin Village Access Point
2022 Surface Water Sampling for PFAS
by PASEC and Sierra Club Moshannon Group
The Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club and local conservationists saw a need to obtain current data on PFAS in Spring Creek and Bald Eagle Creek since the only available data were obtained in 2019 by the USGS. The Moshannon Group and the Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corp (PASEC) formed a partnership to collect surface water samples as a follow up to the 2019 USGS surface water sampling.
PASEC Team 7 collected surface water samples at three sites on March 22, 2022. The samples were analyzed for 28 PFAS compounds at Merit Labs, an accredited and certified laboratory.
PASEC PFAS Sample Site NO. 1 - Karst Spring
at 2023 Buffalo Run Road, Bellefonte
PFAS surface water sample collected from a karst spring feeding into Buffalo Run to the NE of University Park Airport.
The spring had no detectable levels of PFAS.
Flow 0.037 cubic feet per second (586 gallons per minute).
No PFAS detected at Site No. 1.
PASEC Team 7 at Karst Spring Site
PASEC PFAS Sample Site No. 2 - Spring Creek WQN 415 Barns Lane & Spring Creek Road (Samples collected in follow up to USGS 2019 PFAS Data)
A PFAS surface water sample collected from Spring Creek at WQN 415 on March 22, 2022 had levels of PFOA, PFOS, and PFHxA slightly lower than the PFAS levels detected by USGS in 2019.
Flow 160 cubic feet per second (71,813 gallons per minute)
PFOS 2.3 ppt
PFOA 2.0 ppt
PFHxA 2.4 ppt
No other PFAS detected.
Data from the USGS September 17, 2019 Spring Creek WQN 415 sample are summarized below for comparison.
Flow approximately 70 cubic feet per second (31,418 gpm)
PFOS 2.6 ppt
PFOA 2.3 ppt
PFHxA 3.2 ppt
Other PFAS compounds detected.
The March 22, 2022 PASEC data confirms the continued presence of PFAS contamination in Spring Creek near Fisherman’s Paradise.
Spring Creek PFAS Sampling
PASEC PFAS Sample Site No. 3 - Bald Eagle Creek WQN 413 at Curtin Village Access Point (Follow up to USGS 2019 PFAS Sample)
The PFAS surface water sample collected from Bald Eagle Creek WQN 413 on March 22, 2022 had no detectable levels of PFAS.
Flow 600 cubic feet per second (269,000 gpm) at USGS Blanchard site.
Stream flow a few days previous was 900 cubic feet per second (404,000 gpm).
High stream flow may have affected the sample through dilution.
No PFAS detected
Data from 2019 USGS September 12, 2019 Bald Eagle Creek WQN 413 sample is summarized
below for comparison.
Flow 300 cubic feet per second (135,000 gpm) at USGS Blanchard site.
PFOS 1.9 ppt
PFOA 2.0 ppt
PFHxA 2.8 ppt
Other PFAS detected
PASEC Team 7 PFAS Samples
PFAS Fish Consumption Advisories
Many States have issued PFAS fish consumption advisories to protect public health. Some states such as Maine have also issued site specific PFAS consumption advisories for harvested deer. Maine has been heavily impacted by PFAS contamination through the spread of contaminated sewage waste biosolids on agricultural lands adversely affecting Maine’s
agriculture, milk production, hunting, and fishing industries.
Minnesota has a site-specific PFOS value of 0.05 ppt in surface waters and 0.37 ppb in fish
tissue. Minnesota’s surface water value is set to support the fish tissue values. The Great Lakes Consortium for Fish Consumption Advisories suggests if there is less than 10 parts per billion (ppb) PFAS in fish tissue there is no restriction on eating the fish. However, if there is over 200 ppb PFAS in the fish a Do Not Eat Advisory is recommended. It is easy to see that limits for PFAS vary greatly among state and federal agencies. Science-based and standardized PFAS limits are needed to properly protect public health.
Maine has one of the most comprehensive PFOS Fish Consumption Advisories - Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) Scientific Brief: PFOS Fish Consumption Advisory, May 5, 2022. The Maine CDC advisory recommends limits for consumption of fish containing PFOS as follows:
One meal per week of fish containing 3.5 nanogram per gram (parts per billion) PFOS.
One meal per month of fish containing 15 ppb PFOS.
And Do Not Eat Advisory if the fish contains over 60 ppb PFOS.
Pennsylvania currently has a PFAS related Do Not Eat advisory for fish from Neshaminy Creek in Bucks and Montgomery Counties due to PFOS contamination. Routine monitoring for PFAS in fish across PA is needed to protect the health of anglers and hunters consuming game fish in PA. PA’s 2022 PFAS fish consumption advisory limits are no more than 1 fish meal per month for fish containing PFOS from 0.05 to 0.2 ppm and Do Not Eat advisory for fish containing over 0.2 ppm PFOS
Although PFAS has been in use for decades, the study of PFAS in the Spring Creek and Bald
Eagle Creek watersheds is quite recent. PFOA and PFOS have been banned but remain in
surface waters and groundwater as toxic forever chemicals. Many of the thousands of newly
developed PFAS compounds intended to replace PFOA and PFOS are poorly studied. Some of these new “GenX” PFAS compounds have been found to be toxic to human health.
More PFAS testing and mitigation is needed. PFAS compounds are widely distributed and there is much concern for possible effects on humans and wildlife. The extent of PFAS contamination in the Spring Creek Watershed is currently poorly studied or understood. Concentrations of PFAS in surface waters may be flow dependent and more sampling is needed at low flows when chemicals are not diluted. Additional sample sites would be useful to try to pinpoint the sources of PFAS in Centre County’s surface waters.
David Thomas Roberts is a lifelong conservationist born and raised in Centre County. Retired from decades of service in the public health and safety sector, he is currently an Executive Committee Member for Water Conservation with the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club, Secretary of the Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition, lifetime member of Trout Unlimited, and an amateur astronomer with an observatory in the Village of Valley View.