Hundreds bring fears of Airway Heights water contamination to meeting with Fairchild officials
May 23, 2017 Updated Tue., May 23, 2017 at 11:20 p.m.
During a public meeting, Fairchild Air Force Base Commander, Col. Ryan Samuelson addresses concerns about the chemical contaminants that have entered drinking water wells in and around the city of Airway Heights, Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)Buy a print of this photo
Hundreds of people worried about the water they drink, bathe in and give to their animals packed the Medical Lake High School gym Tuesday night to demand answers.
Officials determined last week that some wells near Fairchild Air Force Base, including three wells that serve the Airway Heights public water system, have been contaminated by perfluorinated compounds found in the firefighting foam used on the base for decades. The base stopped using that type of foam last year.
Health and environmental experts were available for one-on-one questions, but some people in the crowd were so thirsty for answers that they shouted out their questions anyway.
Julie Dibble’s family has lived on 10 acres on Thorpe Road just outside Fairchild Air Force Base since the 1960s. They have three wells on their property and one tested at 5,700 parts per trillion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set recommended limits of 70 ppt in drinking water last year.
She said her family was told of the test results and given bottled water. There has been no information from the base despite a request for written test results, Dibble said. “I think it’s important for us to get answers,” she said. “It’s not complete transparency.”
There is a creek running across her property that is used to water livestock and crops, Dibble said. She’s concerned that it may be contaminated as well but Fairchild has refused to test it.
She’s worried about the health effects. Three generations of her family live there and her 2-month-old grandchildren visit daily. If the base had tested her well earlier, her pregnant daughter wouldn’t have drunk the water, she said. “It’s very overwhelming,” she said. “That’s what’s upsetting.”
Dibble said she and her entire adult family have a variety of digestive diseases, which she has learned could be caused by their long-term exposure to the chemicals. “We’re contaminated,” she said.
She said she wants to know what can be done to fix the problem but said she’s been unable to get any answers from the military. “They’re talking to none of us,” she said.
Her family had been considering planting an orchard on the property but now she’s wondering if she’ll be able to keep the land she was hoping to hand down to her children. “So now what?” she said. “What do we do?”
Col. Ryan Samuelson, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, told the crowd he’s trying to be as transparent as possible. He noted that his airmen live and work in Airway Heights and said he notified Airway Heights of the contamination in their wells the same day the test results came back.
“We did not wait weeks or even months at Fairchild Air Force Base to share information,” he said.
A wide variety of test results have come back and can vary. One well might test negative while one next door has very high levels. The age, structure and depth of the wells play a role in whether a well is contaminated, Samuelson said. Deeper wells that tap into a lower aquifer, including the one Airway Heights well that isn’t contaminated, seem to be testing clean.
So far the base has tested wells about 2 miles south and east of the southwest area of the base on Thorpe Road where the foam was used extensively in a firefighting training area, Samuelson said. The area being tested will continue to expand.
“You have my word I will follow up on this every day and I will do this fast,” he said.
The city of Airway Heights shut down the contaminated wells and has been flushing millions of gallons of water out of the system. A distribution center has been set up behind the Yoke’s grocery store to hand out bottled water to residents and businesses with an Airway Heights mailing address.
Airway Heights City Manager Albert Tripp said 80,000 gallons of water has been purchased by the city and Fairchild or donated by the community. Once the city water system has been flushed and refilled with clean water from the city’s remaining well and a hookup to the city of Spokane’s water supply, officials will stop handing out bottled water.
“We’re working hard to resolve the issue,” he said.
Filter systems can be installed in city and private wells to reduce the level of contamination in the water. Samuelson said contractors have been hired to do the work and the base will commit to future water testing and maintenance of the filter systems.
“We want to be the great neighbor you want living next to you,” he said.
Quite a few people who attended Tuesday’s meeting were not Airway Heights residents. Carla Davis has a Medical Lake mailing address but lives west of Hayford Road outside the city. She’s worried about her well.
“I don’t know if it’s contaminated or not,” she said. “You never know how water flows.”
If Fairchild won’t test her well Davis said she’s willing to pay for the $300 test herself. “I just want to make sure,” she said. “I just have a lot of questions.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.