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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airway Heights pumping out contaminated water that some say could be replaced by Fairchild supplies

Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights, Friday May 19, 2017. The city is working to remove contaminates from the water pipes caused when chemicals used for fire suppression at Fairchild Air Force Base entered the water supply. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Water tested at a pair of contaminated Airway Heights wells contains chemical concentrations more than 15 times greater than thresholds established by federal regulators, according to city officials.

The Environmental Protection Agency has established a limit of 70 parts per trillion for chemicals, known by the acronyms PFOA and PFOS, that were used for decades in fire-retardant foam at a fire training site on Fairchild Air Force Base.

Two wells tested in Airway Heights showed levels above 1,100 parts per trillion, City Manager Albert Tripp said.

The wells have been shut off from the system as part of a flushing process that is expected to last until at least Monday, when the city will again test its supplies for traces of the chemicals.

The levels established by the EPA are not enforceable under any federal law, and the Spokane Regional Health District stresses that the link between exposure and potential health problems is not yet completely understood.

Airway Heights is pumping water into its system from Spokane to meet demand during the flushing period.

The city has been releasing potentially contaminated water from hydrants in locations that would minimize any new contamination, including spraying it in areas where city irrigation has been occurring for years, Anderson said.

“We’re trying to discharge it onto city properties as much as possible,” Anderson said.

Fairchild has lent its assistance in handing out bottled water to affected citizens, but several former and current city officials say the base could be providing additional water from its supplies that are drawn from areas far from contaminated zones.

Joe Martella, who served as mayor of Airway Heights in the late 1980s and early ’90s, said citizens were getting a “raw deal” by not receiving water from a pipe pumping water to the base from its source near Spokane Falls Community College. The current public works director said Airway Heights could quickly benefit from sharing supplies with the base.

“It would be very easy for us to connect to their system,” Public Works Director Kevin Anderson said.

Asked about the possibility of hooking up to Fairchild’s water system, Airway Heights Mayor Kevin Richey said, “I certainly hope so.”

“Those talks are coming,” he said, adding that buying water from Spokane was “not sustainable” because of the expense.

Fairchild has used water pumped from off-base wells since its establishment as a military installation in the 1940s, said Fred Zitterkopf, a retired civil engineer who worked there from 1973 to 1999.

“Fairchild wells produced enough water to operate Fairchild,” Zitterkopf said. “There wasn’t a large excess. They don’t have large amounts of water.”

Martella said the city signed agreements with Fairchild to allow pipes to run through town without any requirements the base would provide water in the event of an emergency. But Martella also said Fairchild could be helping out with the flushing by making its water, which is fluoridated once it arrives on the base, available for the flushing process.

“That water goes right through the middle of town,” Martella said. “I’m not mad at anybody, I’m just saying Airway Heights is getting a raw deal. The thing to fix it is right in front of your nose.”

A request for comment on why Fairchild has not offered its water to Airway Heights was not returned by base officials Friday.

Zitterkopf likened the current contamination issues to the efforts to clean up trichloroethylene (TCE). The chemical is common in industrial-grade solvents that were discovered in many locations on the base in the late 1980s, including the fire training site that has been identified as a likely source of the chemicals currently found in Airway Heights wells.

“Like many things, as time goes on, and tests go on and studies improve, things that were considered to be perfectly harmless 10 years earlier turn out to have some level of toxicity,” he said.

Zitterkopf, who led restoration efforts following the discovery of the contamination in the 1980s, said testing on the foam runoff was not conducted for PFOA and PFOS at the time because there were no standards, and the chemicals hadn’t been identified as hazardous by manufacturers or federal regulators.

“I’d never heard of that. That foam was an accepted practice anyplace, especially where you had large aircraft that would contain one heck of a lot of fuel,” Zitterkopf said.

Fairchild spent more than $1 million at the time in cleanup efforts and assisting private well owners in the area to remove the contaminant after it was named a Superfund site by the EPA.