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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Firefighting foam may have contaminated groundwater near Fairchild, officials say

A KC-135 Stratotanker undergoes maintenance at Fairchild Air Force Base, Feb. 14, 2017. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Fairchild Air Force Base says groundwater that supplies nearby homes may have been contaminated by a fire-extinguishing foam that the Air Force stopped using last year after a recommendation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Air Force officials said Monday that the foam had been used at a former firefighter training site on the eastern edge of the base since 1970. It contained fluorinated compounds known by the acronyms PFOS and PFOA, which have been used to make clothing, carpet, upholstery, cookware and paper food packaging.

Testing in February found contamination in five wells near the training site, officials said. Those wells are on base and don’t supply drinking water.

The EPA says most people have low levels of the compounds in their bloodstreams due to exposure from a wide array of consumer products. But a growing body of research suggests high concentrations are linked with health defects in lab animals, including low birth weight, high cholesterol, delayed puberty and poor responses to vaccination.

The compounds also resist degradation in the environment and accumulate in people’s blood and organs, rather than break down during metabolization, according to the EPA.

Companies in the United States and elsewhere have voluntarily phased out production of the chemicals since the early 2000s.

The EPA highlighted concerns about the chemicals last year in an updated health advisory, an action the agency describes as “non-enforceable and non-regulatory.”

The Air Force subsequently chose to use a different kind of foam in its firefighting operations. All the fire trucks at Fairchild now carry the new foam, and a system is being developed to prevent any foam discharge during equipment testing, officials said.

On Monday, officials were visiting off-base homes along Thorpe Road, requesting permission to test 25 wells that may have been contaminated by PFOS and PFOA. It’s a specific test that comes in addition to an annual survey of water quality for residents near Fairchild.

“We’re systematically sampling groundwater and soil where (foam) was released, and there are short and long-term plans in place if testing shows any of our past activities have affected drinking water,” Air Force Col. Ryan Samuelson said in a letter distributed to residents.

One of those residents was Julie Dipple, whose family has lived on Thorpe Road since the 1960s. A creek runs past the old fire training site and through her 10-acre property. They get drinking water from one of three wells on the property.

“We’ve been concerned about our water for a while,” Dipple said, noting that her livestock animals drink from the creek.

Fairchild was put on the nation’s Superfund list in 1989 after fuel, oil, solvents and metals were found in the groundwater and soil. Concerns have especially focused on trichloroethylene, a solvent known to cause cancer that the military used as a degreaser.