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More wells near Fairchild test positive for firefighting chemicals – north of the base

UPDATED: Thu., July 27, 2017, 10:35 p.m.

Airway Heights crews flush contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park on May 19, 2017. The city learned its water was contaminated after Fairchild Air Force Base revealed it had leaked untold amounts of toxic fire retardant. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Airway Heights crews flush contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park on May 19, 2017. The city learned its water was contaminated after Fairchild Air Force Base revealed it had leaked untold amounts of toxic fire retardant. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Forty more wells north of Fairchild Air Force Base have tested positive for toxic firefighting chemicals, with 21 exceeding the level that federal regulators believe is safe, base officials said Thursday.

The chemicals were discovered in a third round of testing and apparently migrated through the water table, said 2nd Lt. Kate Miranda, a Fairchild spokeswoman. They previously were detected in groundwater in the area south and east of the base, near a training site where base firefighters practiced dousing aircraft fires from 1970 until last year.

Known by the acronyms PFOS and PFOA, the perfluorinated chemicals were key ingredients in a firefighting foam, as well as Teflon, Scotchguard and other consumer products. They degrade slowly in the environment and have been linked to an array of health defects, including high cholesterol, immune system and thyroid disorders, and certain types of cancer.

Fairchild’s public affairs chief, 1st Lt. Tanya Wren, said Air Force engineers have been strategically testing various locations based on their proximity to the base and the probability that any contamination originated from military activity.

In the latest phase, samples of drinking water were taken from 50 wells north of the base between July 12 and July 15, and 21 showed concentrations above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation of 70 parts per trillion. Nineteen samples showed lower concentrations, and 10 showed no trace of the chemicals.

Wren said she could not immediately obtain the precise results of the testing from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. Fairchild officials declined to provide any numerical results after previous rounds of testing.

Wren also said she could not disclose a street address for each well tested, in keeping with Fairchild policy. Asked if that information is legally exempt from public disclosure, she said: “Merely a privacy issue. That’s somebody else’s information, and it’s not our right to give it out.”

Wren did, however, say that some of the wells tested are in the area bound by U.S. Highway 2 on the south, 12th Avenue on the north, Fairchild Street on the west and Marlette Lane on the east.

On Thursday evening, several residents in that area said they had not yet received test results. However, Linda Racicot, who’s lived on Dover Road near Fifth Avenue since 1998, said base officials visited to inform her that her well showed a concentration of 34 parts per trillion.

Wren said other private wells were tested this month in an area south of the base along state Route 902.

In addition to private wells, the chemicals seeped into several wells that supply the city of Airway Heights’ tap water. For three weeks beginning May 16, residents were advised not to drink or cook with water from city pipes, and the municipal water system had to be flushed of the contaminants.

Some wells near Fairchild have shown concentrations far exceeding 70 parts per trillion. The EPA established that threshold in May 2016, although it’s not an enforceable regulation. The base itself draws drinking water from a different aquifer which has not been contaminated.

Most Americans have measurable perfluorochemicals in their blood, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Currently, there’s “no established blood level at which a health effect is known nor is there a level that is clearly associated with past or future health problems,” the agency said.

Fifteen million Americans drink water with elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA, according to a study released last month by Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group. Most of them live near 47 military or industrial sites, the study said.

Manufacturers of the chemicals have faced numerous lawsuits. 3M, the maker of Scotchguard, announced 17 years ago it would voluntarily phase out PFOS before many of its competitors. The company has claimed that much of the public information about the chemicals is “misleading” or “simply incorrect.”

Jeff Snyder, a retired Air Force technical sergeant who lives just west of Fairchild and the adjacent Waste Management landfill, said he and his neighbors have been frustrated because base officials haven’t tested for PFOS or PFOA in their area.

Even if it’s unlikely the chemicals have migrated that far, Snyder said he wants a degree of certainty that he hasn’t been poisoned. He said he has high cholesterol and wonders if the chemicals, which he may have been exposed to during his 20 years of military service, are a factor.

“I’ll tell you this: I’m not too happy with the information I’m getting,” Snyder said.

Bloomberg and Spokesman-Review reporter Nick Deshais contributed to this report.