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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fairchild runoff could spur lawsuits

During a public meeting, Fairchild Air Force Base Commander, Col. Ryan Samuelson addresses concerns about the contaminants PFOS/PFOA that have entered drinking water wells in and around the City of Airway Heights, Tues., May 23, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

More than a few residents of the area surrounding Fairchild Air Force Base suspect their chronic health problems can be attributed to chemical runoff from the base’s firefighting operations.

But if they bring their water woes to court, it may be easier to collect damages for a different problem: diminished property values.

The perfluorinated chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA have been found in dozens of wells near Fairchild, and in the city of Airway Heights’ tap water, at levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation of 70 parts per trillion. But scientists say it’s not clear how those chemicals interact in the human body, or how much of them will cause a given disease or disorder.

“There’s uncertainty about what the effects are and what they’ll be in the future,” said Andrew Biviano, a Spokane attorney who recently filed a tort claim against the Air Force on behalf of one landowner whose well was contaminated.

However, Biviano said, “even the perception of negative health effects is enough to make property values go down. You know, who wants to risk it by buying that property?”

That’s a big concern for Terry Nabakowski, who’s lived in a ranch house on Craig Road – near the former fire training site on the eastern edge of the air base – for 30 years.

“Now when I go to sell this place, I’m not going to make (anything) because I have to divulge that I’ve got contaminated wells,” Nabakowski said. “I couldn’t even rent it with a clear conscience.”

When landowners in Spokane County believe they’re paying too much in property taxes, they can appeal the county’s Board of Equalization to lower their property valuations. A board employee said this week that the water contamination from Fairchild has had no effect on the number of appeals filed in recent months.

But the contamination did scare away at least one prospective home buyer on the West Plains, said Pam Novell, a managing broker with Windermere Real Estate.

“It did cost us at least one transaction,” Novell said.

Real estate sales in the area seemed to slow down after the contamination began making headlines a few months ago, but they have since recovered, she said.

Biviano, who outside of his legal practice serves as chairman of the Spokane County Democratic Party, filed the tort claim in May, citing both health concerns and diminished property value. Because the Air Force is a branch of the federal government, there’s a six-month waiting period before he can file a lawsuit.

During that time, the parties could settle the matter out of court, but Biviano said that’s unlikely because the water issue is “a lot more complex than your average claim” and requires a deeper investigation.

John Fiske, an attorney with the high-powered Baron & Budd firm based in Dallas, said the real culprits are the manufacturers of the firefighting foam that contained the toxic chemicals. He said they should have instructed users – in this case, the Air Force – to avoid letting the chemicals trespass onto neighboring properties.

“They really pushed out an enormous amount of product, and they did so without any proper warning and instructions for disposal,” said Fiske, who’s investigating the contamination near Fairchild.

Makers of firefighting foam, all which have been sued for alleged contamination, include 3M, Tyco Fire Products LP, Angus Fire, National Foam, Buckeye Fire Protection Co. and Chemguard, according to Bloomberg. 3M, which announced 17 years ago it would voluntarily phase out PFOS before many of its competitors, said public information about the chemical has been “misleading.”

Fiske, meanwhile, said it’s “simplistic” to blame local users of the foam, such as Fairchild. He noted the scope of the PFOS/PFOA problem.

Since the EPA updated its health guidelines last year, the Pentagon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to find and mitigate contamination around military installations.

And according to a recent study by Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group, at least 15 million Americans drink water with elevated levels of the chemicals. The study found most of those people live near 47 military or industrial sites.

“The question I ask is: Is it the product that’s the problem, or is it every single one of these airports and military sites?” Fiske said.

Last year, however, the Colorado Springs Gazette published a lengthy investigation showing that the Air Force ignored decades of warnings from its own researchers about the harmful effects of perfluorinated compounds.

Terry Nabakowski said Fairchild officials tested his well and found a concentration of 67 parts per trillion – just below the EPA threshold. Because of that, he said, the base has not provided his family with bottled water and has been slow to address their concerns.

His wife, Cindy Nabakowski, wonders if any of the family’s health problems were caused by the contaminated water. She and her daughter have overactive thyroid glands, and thyroid diseases are commonly associated with exposure to PFOS and PFOA.

And, Nabakowski said: “Back in 1990 they took a tumor out of me – a pretty big one – and they couldn’t tell me what the hell caused it.”