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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Air Force to reimburse Airway Heights for clean water after decades of chemical contamination

After visiting a water distribution site, Airway Heights resident Josh Baker heads home with two cases of bottled water for his family. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The U.S. Air Force has agreed to reimburse the city of Airway Heights for water it’s purchasing from the city of Spokane, months after the revelation that firefighting operations at Fairchild Air Force Base have contaminated the former city’s drinking water system.

The Air Force will pay Airway Heights for up to 440 million gallons of clean tap water with a potential cost of more than $687,000 during the next year, according to Air Force officials based in San Antonio. The agreement took effect Nov. 1.

Airway Heights Mayor Kevin Richey said Wednesday the Air Force had stopped paying for bottled water for residents who rely on the municipal water system. The military is now picking up some of the costs associated with pumping water from Spokane, which draws from a different aquifer.

“It’s an increased cost from what we would normally pay to get it out of the ground ourselves,” Richey said.

Military installations across the country – and their civilian neighbors – are trying to quantify the environmental and physical health effects of perfluorinated compounds known as PFOA and PFOS, which were key ingredients in a foam used to douse ship and aircraft fires. Cleanup and mitigation efforts are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Lawsuits and tort claims have been filed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year advised limiting concentrations of the chemicals to 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, but it has not created a framework for regulating the chemicals, and local and state health authorities are not required to test for them. Some environmental experts, meanwhile, say the chemicals are unsafe at any concentration.

PFOA and PFOS have been linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders and other serious health problems. And numerous studies, including some commissioned by the military and the chemicals’ manufacturers, hinted at those health effects decades ago. The compounds were once main ingredients in Teflon and Scotchguard but have been voluntarily phased out of production.

Last month, the New York Times reported that a top Trump administration appointee in the EPA’s toxic chemical unit, Nancy Beck, “insisted upon the rewriting of a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of (PFOA) and therefore regulate it,” drawing concern and criticism from colleagues.

Beck previously worked for the Washington State Department of Health and for the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association.

In Airway Heights, chemical runoff from Fairchild has contaminated dozens of wells, including several that supplied the city’s tap water. Air Force officials have been testing wells in phases for about a year in an attempt to trace how the chemicals migrated through the water table. They were used on the base for decades, and it remains to be seen how far they spread.

The base’s public affairs office said 202 wells were tested between May and the end of September, with 57 showing chemical concentrations above the EPA threshold, 55 showing concentrations below that threshold and 90 showing no trace of the compounds. A new round of testing began in early October.

Airway Heights has long purchased water from Spokane to bolster its supply during the summer months, using a pipe that moves up to 1,500 gallons per minute. The cities added a second, smaller connection after the chemical contamination prompted a shutdown of Airway Heights’ system this spring, bringing the total pumping capacity to about 2,000 gallons per minute.

Marlene Feist, a spokeswoman for Spokane’s public works department, said the city sold Airway Heights an average of about 92 million gallons per year from 2012 to 2016. She said the extra demand this year is not cause for concern.

“We’re used to them pumping during the summertime,” she said, “so for them to pump during the winter months is basically no big deal.”

She noted that Airway Heights’ total annual water usage, about 450 million gallons, is still less than 2 percent of the 23 billion gallons that Spokane pumps from its system each year.

Cleanup and mitigation of perfluorinated chemicals near more than 400 U.S. military installations may cost up to $2 billion, according to some estimates. U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and other lawmakers, are pushing to include an extra $62 million for that effort in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.