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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chemicals found in Fairchild wells not used for drinking water

A KC-135 air refueling tanker waits for its next mission while parked on the flight line at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane Wednesday APril 20, 2005. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Five groundwater wells on Fairchild Air Force Base that are not used for drinking tested high for dangerous chemicals found in firefighting foam, prompting further tests of drinking water sources in the area.

Those findings were part of a water contamination test that has triggered a nationwide review.

The military is testing water at about 400 bases and found problems at more than three dozen, according to an analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

The newspaper reported that despite more than $150 million spent on the effort, the process has been slow and seemingly disjointed.

The Air Force has completed sampling at nearly all of its targeted bases; the Navy, barely 10 percent. The Army has not begun, according to the news report. The branches and the Pentagon say they are coordinating, but have varying responses on how many bases must be tested, and limited information about remediation timelines and cost.

The drinking water sampled at Fairchild so far registered as having undetectable levels of the chemicals or amounts below the health advisory issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year.

The chemicals found at Fairchild during the water tests were from past use of fire suppression foam that contain perfluorinated compounds. Those chemicals have been linked to certain cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

The contaminated wells on base are near firefighting training sites and two locations where aircraft have crashed. One is close to the base’s eastern fence line, near the intersection of Rambo and Thorpe roads.

After those test results were reported in March, base officials began contacting nearby residents for permission to test their private wells.

Lt. Katherine Miranda, of base media relations, said Tuesday the results of those tests are expected next week.

Any drinking water wells that test above the EPA limits will prompt immediate action from the Air Force Civil Engineering Center, with bottled drinking water provided for residents until a long-term solution is in place, Fairchild said in the news release announcing the chemical contamination in its wells.

“Priority one is make sure that there is no exposure to the contaminant,” Mark Correll, an Air Force official, told the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. “Once we’ve assured that you’re talking eight years to get yourself to a remediation solution.”

Contamination has been found near 27 military bases in 16 states, according to the Air Force, Navy, and Army. The military has also addressed contamination in on-base drinking systems on 15 installations.

The contamination is also cropping up near airports, private plants, and fire stations. Attention has focused on the military because of extreme cases near bases where about 60,000 residents were affected.

“The Department of Defense, I think, is coming around to the reality that they have a significant problem on their hands nationwide,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation in New York, told the Philadelphia paper.

The Air Force, Navy, and Army say they have similar plans: First, they will sample bases where the foam, known as aqueous film-forming foam, may have been used, then assess whether remediation is needed. After that, the cleanup would begin.