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

Airway Heights tap water still contaminated

Tap water in Airway Heights still contains levels of firefighting chemicals above federal recommendations, a third round of testing has shown.

It has been more than two weeks since residents were first advised not to drink or cook with water from city pipes – a warning that remained in place on Friday.

The perfluorinated chemicals, known by the acronyms PFOS and PFOA, were key ingredients in a fire-extinguishing foam that was used for decades on Fairchild Air Force Base. They seeped into groundwater from a fire training site on the eastern edge of the base.

Airway Heights Fire Chief Mitch Metzger said that of 20 samples recently collected from water lines throughout the city, four showed concentrations of the chemicals ranging from 85 to 141 parts per trillion.

One sample taken from an industrial area showed a concentration of 1,245 parts per trillion. Metzger said the city would isolate that part of the water system by closing a valve.

The rest of the samples, Metzger said, showed no trace of the chemicals or tested well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation of 70 parts per trillion, a guideline based on “lifetime exposure.”

City officials had hoped to lift the water advisory more than a week ago, but Metzger said Friday that an ongoing flushing process has proved successful at decreasing contamination levels. He said more than 25 million gallons of water had been released onto irrigation properties throughout the city.

Some contamination remains because the city can’t drain its system completely. It needs to keep reservoirs about halfway full to maintain pressure for firefighting operations, Metzger said. Clean water is being pumped in from the city of Spokane.

Metzger said the city will continue flushing its pipes and collect new samples on Monday. The samples will be sent to Anatek Labs in Moscow and results should be available midweek, he said.

Scientists have yet to gain a thorough understanding of the chemicals and their effects on the human body, although decades of research have linked them to an array of health defects, from high cholesterol to thyroid disease to pregnancy-induced hypertension.

The city says its tap water is safe for bathing, doing laundry, washing dishes and other activities that don’t involve ingesting it.

Firefighters and volunteers have been distributing bottled water to residents in a vacant lot behind the Yoke’s grocery store. Residents unable to leave their homes can request weekend deliveries by calling the city fire department at (509) 244-3322 or the police department at (509) 244-3707.

The water advisory has put a strain on local businesses.

“The first couple of weeks, that was a real challenge,” said Justin Davis, a co-owner of Wolffy’s Hamburgers in Airway Heights.

The restaurant has been spending hundreds of dollars a week to ship in fresh ice, even though it’s equipped with an ice machine. And employees have been making frequent trips to the nearby Yoke’s grocery store to stock up on canned soda, Davis said. Many other restaurants have been doing the same, he said.

The city and the Air Force have been providing 100 gallons of bottled water a day to local businesses, but even that posed some logistical challenges during the first few days.

“We were maxing out our trash cans,” Davis said. “Those 5-gallon jugs take up a lot of space.”

The city has since positioned some dumpsters for recycling, and Davis said he appreciates that local officials are working to fix the problem. Meanwhile, he said, his employees have adjusted to new routines, like making pour-over coffee and wrapping extra ice in plastic bags to store in the walk-in freezer.

“You get really creative really fast,” he said.