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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Testing confirms chemical contamination in residential wells near Fairchild Air Force Base

KC-135 Stratotankers await their missions, Feb. 14, 2017, at Fairchild Air Force Base. Washington might try to protect Fairchild Air Force Base and its other military installations from the congressional chopping block by telling local governments to restrict “incompatible” development near a base. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Air Force officials visited Julie Dipple’s home last week to share some troubling news: Her drinking water is contaminated and it probably has been for a long time.

Dipple’s family lives in a pair of neighboring homes on Thorpe Road in Airway Heights, just east of Fairchild Air Force Base. Officials say 16 groundwater wells in the area have tested positive for chemicals recently identified as a health risk by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The culprit, officials say, is a fire-extinguishing foam that was used from 1970 until last year on a training site on the edge of the base, as well as two locations where aircraft have crashed.

Known by the acronyms PFOS and PFOA, the chemicals have been used to make clothing, carpet, upholstery, cookware and paper food packaging, in addition to the fire retardant.

The EPA says most people have low levels of the compounds in their bloodstreams because of exposure from 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 science is still kind of evolving,” said Capt. David Liapis, chief of public affairs for the 92nd Air Refueling Wing stationed at Fairchild.

The EPA highlighted concerns about the chemicals last year in an updated health advisory, and the Pentagon launched a nationwide effort to find and mitigate contamination.

According to an analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, the military is testing water at about 400 bases and found problems at more than three dozen. The newspaper reported that despite more than $150 million spent on the effort, the process has been slow and seemingly disjointed.

“Our goal throughout this process has been, and will continue to be, transparency with our neighbors and community partners,” Col. Matthew Fritz, vice commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, said in a statement.

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

The Air Force notified residents in early April that it would test for the chemicals. Last week, a private lab returned preliminary results showing high levels of contamination in 16 off-base wells. Other wells are still being monitored.

The Air Force has distributed bottled water to residents near Fairchild and said it may install filtration systems in the coming months.

Until she gets more information, Dipple said she won’t allow her family to drink the well water, or use it to bathe her infant grandchildren.

“We’re not going to roll the dice and risk it,” she said.