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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kalispel Tribe sues foam makers, federal government over West Plains water contamination

New homes sprout in front of the Northern Quest casino on the dusty West Plains in Airway Heights, shown March 11, 2020. The casino remains closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians is suing the federal government and makers of a toxic fire retardant foam that has contaminated West Plains water supplies, joining thousands of plaintiffs across the country who say evidence of the foam’s harmful effects has been ignored or covered up for decades.

The Kalispel Tribe, which runs Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights, says its business was harmed in 2017 when the city realized its tap system contained unsafe levels of the chemicals known as PFAS. That was due to decades of foam runoff from firefighting operations at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

The tribe filed its suit in U.S. District Court on Monday, accusing the government and foam manufacturers of negligence. The suit seeks more than $21 million in damages from the government and the same amount from a group of manufacturers that includes Minnesota-based 3M Co.

“The Kalispel Tribe is deeply concerned about the growing problem of PFAS contamination in groundwater in Airway Heights and many other places throughout the nation,” Zach Welcker, one of the tribe’s attorneys, said in a statement. “The designers, manufacturers and users of PFAS-containing fire retardant have known for decades that these chemicals are highly toxic and would likely migrate into public and private water supplies.”

The goal of the lawsuit, Welcker said, is “to force the defendants to compensate the tribe for its business losses, discontinue the use of these chemicals, and to the extent possible, clean up the water they have contaminated.”

The other manufacturers named in the suit are Tyco Fire Products, Buckeye Fire Equipment Co., Chemguard Inc., Kidde Firefighting Inc. and National Foam Inc. The complaint notes studies conducted by the Air Force and 3M in the 1970s and ’80s that linked PFAS compounds to environmental and health issues.

Kalispel Tribe spokeswoman Julie Holland said lawyers anticipate the suit will be consolidated into a major multidistrict case being heard in South Carolina, which includes claims against the manufacturers from a local class-action suit filed in April 2018. The complex case could involve billions of dollars in liability claims.

Fairchild officials first acknowledged in early 2017 that groundwater in the area had been contaminated by aqueous film-forming foam, a widely used fire retardant that contained the toxic PFAS compounds. The contamination forced Airway Heights to flush millions of gallons from its drinking water system; the city now pipes in water from Spokane.

Those same chemicals also have been used in nonstick products such as Teflon and Scotchguard, though they have been phased out of use in consumer products since the early 2000s. PFAS compounds are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they degrade extremely slowly in the environment and in the bloodstream.

Tens of millions of people in the United States, primarily those near military installations, rely on tap water containing unsafe levels of the compounds, according to the Environmental Working Group. Manufacturers, including 3M and DuPont, have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over the issue.

Fairchild is one of eight U.S. military installations where federal scientists are studying human exposure to PFAS compounds. State and federal regulators also have taken steps to mitigate PFAS contamination in groundwater. The Food and Drug Administration last year documented unsafe levels of the compounds in grocery store items including meats, seafood and chocolate cake.