FORT JACKSON, S.C. — More than 16 percent of the drinking water wells tested near Fort Jackson over the past six years have shown contamination from a toxic chemical found in hand grenades used to train soldiers, according to recently released federal data.
In some cases, the pollution levels are high enough to exceed federal safety advisories for RDX — a chemical that can cause seizures and cancer in people from long-term exposure, The State reported. In other cases, RDX in private wells has fallen within safe drinking water limits, Army officials and state regulators reported this week.
RDX is an ingredient in hand grenades that makes them explode. Fort Jackson officials estimated that soldiers throw 100,000 hand grenades a year at the base, but they think the pollution along Leesburg Road was caused from training soldiers decades ago.
But the finding of any RDX — royal demolition explosive — is a concern.
Matt Torkelson, a former drill sergeant and explosives inspector at Fort Jackson, said current training should not be dismissed as a possible source. The base's continued use of hand grenades is necessary, but it threatens water supplies, he said.
“It can contribute to the continuation of groundwater contamination,” Torkelson said. "We are talking about chemicals that can seep through the ground and sit there for an extended period before it gets rolled into groundwater.
"Every hand grenade that is thrown there is leaving a little residual RDX on the earth."
Fort Jackson officials said they've taken measures to prevent RDX from flowing toward private wells, including treating soil with lime to neutralize the chemical. In addition, the base has supplied bottled water and installed water filtration systems to keep it out of tap water.
The contaminant was found in groundwater at Fort Jackson six years ago as part of an Army initiative to check military bases for pollution from explosives. At first, the Army reported that it had not found unsafe levels in groundwater wells off the base. But further testing in 2014 found elevated levels of RDX in wells that served five homes across from Fort Jackson.
Since 2013, the Army has conducted more than 800 tests involving 186 wells off the military base, finding 31 wells polluted by RDX. That's 16.6 percent. Of those 31 wells, 16 exceeded federal standards for safe drinking water or were over a risk limit established by the federal government, according to data released this week by Fort Jackson and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Susan Hall, who lives on a dirt and gravel road below the base, said the Army isn't doing enough.
She said Fort Jackson should test all drinking water wells in the area, instead of just for selected people. Hall said she worries that a historic flood in 2015 dispersed pollution from the base into her community's groundwater, which worsened the RDX problem.
"I understand the military's part, but let's don't be like Russia, where we just kill our people and don't give a crap," said Hall, who adds Fort Jackson has not tested her well. "This is America. You are supposed to care what you're doing to other people. It would be nice if they did check it. That would be awesome."
Fort Jackson said it will test wells for those who request it and grant the base permission. The base now is testing about 75 wells annually, according to a July 22 update from the fort.
Despite concerns about RDX flowing off the base and into people's backyard wells, Fort Jackson said the most likely reason for the pollution is past military training activities. The Army once used about 18,000 acres south off the base as a training ground for soldiers. The area has developed since that time, with homes dotting the landscape.
"The RDX in off-post wells is not from our current hand grenade training, but is the result of historical training activities, possibly as early as the 1940s," according to Fort Jackson's update.
Fort Jackson officials said they are investigating whether people whose wells contain unsafe level of RDX could be hooked up to the Columbia city water system. That would require construction of about two miles of water line, the base update said.
While the RDX issue has been identified in recent years, pollution on military bases is nothing new in South Carolina or across the country.
Most recently, questions have surfaced about how an emerging and lightly regulated group of pollutants, known as perfluoroalkyl substances, are affecting groundwater and drinking water in and around bases. Fort Jackson is investigating impacts from these pollutants on the base.
Some types of these chemicals are contained in firefighting foam military bases have used.
Officials at McEntire Air National Guard base in eastern Richland County and at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter County also are investigating after finding contamination by perfluoroalkyl substances in groundwater, recent federal reports show.
Last week, the Department of Defense said it would establish a task force to study the impacts of chemicals from firefighting foam on military bases.