COLUMBIA, SC — Traces of a caustic pollutant associated with military ammunition have turned up in groundwater at the edge of Fort Jackson, and base officials plan to test private wells nearby to see whether they are contaminated.
The base’s public announcement Thursday of the groundwater pollution sparked questions about when well owners were notified of the potential threat to an area where some residents still rely on wells for drinking water.
Base officials said they found traces of the pollutant in “recent’’ tests at the fort’s southern boundary and the McCrady Training Center, but the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control released a letter saying the military may have known about the contamination for more than a year before telling the agency.
The material, known as Royal Demolition Explosive, or RDX, is a man-made compound that can cause seizures in people who swallow substantial quantities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has been tied to cancer in laboratory animals and is considered a possible human carcinogen.
In an Oct. 25 letter to Fort Jackson’s public works department, DHEC director Catherine Templeton said the department should have been told of the contamination soon after the military learned about it in the summer of 2012. Last month’s letter told the fort to begin testing any wells downhill from the contaminated area.
“It is our belief that you have known about this exceedance since July 2012 and failed to notify the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) of the potential area of concern within 15 days required by your (hazardous materials) permit,’’ Templeton’s letter said.
Templeton said her agency planned to meet with the Department of the Army to discuss a long-term plan to address the RDX pollution and “other issues discovered today.’’ Details of the scheduled meeting were not available.
An attempt to reach Fort Jackson spokesman Patrick Jones was unsuccessful Thursday afternoon, but base officials said in a news release that the amounts found in groundwater were below health advisory levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While there are questions about Fort Jackson’s response, Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he wants to know why the state agency didn’t take decisive action sooner. It has been three weeks since Templeton’s letter told the base to test private wells.
“It seems like they punted to the fort and said, ‘OK, you guys notify,’ Jackson said. “I have no jurisdiction over Fort Jackson, but we do with DHEC. I’m disappointed DHEC has not taken a more aggressive approach.’’
Jackson, who represents the area, said elected officials should have been told about the pollution. He said he did not know about the contamination until informed Thursday by the news media.
The base is expected to release more details of its findings and answer questions for the media Friday.
The fort’s news release said private wells will be tested the first two weeks of December, pending permission from property owners. The fort also plans town hall meetings for residents within a two-mile radius of the military facility.
“We want to make sure that RDX is not migrating off the installation,’’ said Bradley Becker, Fort Jackson’s commanding general.
Fort Jackson’s news release went on to say that “in the unlikely event RDX is detected above risk-based levels, appropriate action will be taken.’’
It was not immediately known how many people get their drinking water from private wells near Fort Jackson. Columbia utilities director Joey Jaco said Thursday night much of the Leesburg Road area has public water available, but state Rep. Jimmy Bales said the area still has pockets of homes on backyard wells.
Bales said he was unaware of the contamination until contacted by the media. Despite the military’s assurances that it found only low levels of RDX, Bales, D-Richland, said he’s still concerned.
“No kind of pollution is acceptable to me,’’ he said. “I would not want to drink water with any trace of pollution in it. Would you?’’