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Shawn Vestal: Airway Heights water worse than feared

Water that may be contaminated with chemicals used in firefighting foam on Fairchild Air Force Base is flushed from a fire hydrant in Airway Heights last December. Washington is banning those chemicals for civilian fire departments, although it has no authority to extend the ban to military bases. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

People living around Fairchild Air Force Base drank water contaminated with a chemical found in firefighting foams, probably for decades.

In the year since the pollution was discovered in city wells, residents have gone from bottled water to home water filters, and city officials have negotiated a temporary deal to access Spokane aquifer water.

The goal has been to find clean water, not clean the dirty water. It’s a good thing, too, given that a new federal report indicates the water around the base was dirtier than previously known.

Kevin Anderson, public works director for the city of Airway Heights, said that the city is entering the high-usage summer confident in its temporary supply, coming largely from a deal with the city of Spokane to access water from the aquifer and a summer-only filtration system for one city well.

He said he’s been watching scientific and political discussions around the contaminants, but that they don’t directly affect the water coming out of taps in Airway Heights. And the city’s long-range plan is not to meet a moving federal target for the pollutants, but to have its own threshold of zero.

“We like to keep our finger on the pulse of knowing (new federal thresholds for contaminants),” he said, “but our approach to this has always been to eliminate all of the contamination from the water supply.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report says potential health problems associated with the group of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, are greater than previously believed, and can have a negative effect at much lower concentrations than current federal thresholds.

It says that exposure to PFAS is associated with cancer, liver damage, reduced fertility, asthma and other problems. It also describes negative effects at very low doses, and indicates that dangers for pregnant women and children are particularly acute.

The report also calls for lowering federal limits on the chemicals by a factor of 10; doing so would mean that more people would be considered at risk – and that people with historic exposure to the chemicals could have been affected more than they knew.

Reporting in ProPublica and Politico shows that the Trump administration worked to suppress the report for months because it would be bad PR and costly to fix – a “public relations nightmare.” The EPA also barred journalists from attending a public summit on the pollutants earlier this year, and has adopted a more-or-less pro-pollutant attitude that includes bringing chemical industry execs on board to reset limits on hazardous substances.

Despite all that, the ATSDR report was quietly made public last week, placed online without fanfare months after it was ready. For a report with truly enormous financial and health implications it didn’t produce much splash. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that it was posted in the midst of the humanitarian trash fire at the border, but it was the perfect time to release if you were hoping it would be ignored.

And it’s clear, from the communications among administration officials released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under public records law, that they were really, really hoping it would be ignored.

One unidentified White House aide, writing about the effort to keep the results under wraps, wrote, “The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and (the Defense Department) is going to be extremely painful. We cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

Yes, imagine the EPA’s extreme pain.

The chemicals that befouled the water in Airway Heights have also done so all over the country. They’re in about 1,500 drinking water systems nationwide, according to the Environmental Working Group, and they’re a particular problem at and around military bases. The Department of Defense says that water supplies around 126 bases have the chemicals above EPA standard, and 36 bases have contamination on-site.

That report shows that testing around Fairchild revealed PFAS and other contaminants in the Airway Heights municipal water system and 43 private wells, some at levels many times higher than the federal threshold. It does not list Fairchild as a base whose water supply is affected.

The report suggests that a much lower threshold should be used for PFAS, which would mean more extensive and expensive cleanups, and more drawn-out debates and discussions and deflections.

The bright side for Airway Heights? It’s not waiting around for those final answers on high about what’s flowing from the taps.

That would be a nightmare.

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