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Thursday, August 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington DOC sues federal government over chemicals that tainted food from Airway Heights prison

UPDATED: Sat., April 25, 2020

A fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the Airway Heights Corrections Center, which has set up beds in the prison chapel to serve as a “regional care facility” for inmates diagnosed with COVID-19. At least 40 inmates and 12 employees at Washington’s Coyote Ridge Corrections Center have been infected by the novel coronavirus. Some have been transferred to Airway Heights. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the Airway Heights Corrections Center, which has set up beds in the prison chapel to serve as a “regional care facility” for inmates diagnosed with COVID-19. At least 40 inmates and 12 employees at Washington’s Coyote Ridge Corrections Center have been infected by the novel coronavirus. Some have been transferred to Airway Heights. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington’s Department of Corrections is suing the federal government over decades of chemical runoff from Fairchild Air Force Base that contaminated water supplies and tainted food produced at the Airway Heights Corrections Center.

State attorneys filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Spokane on Tuesday, accusing the Air Force of negligence and seeking $2.45 million in damages.

It’s the latest in a wave of lawsuits against the United States and manufacturers of aqueous film-forming foam, a toxic fire retardant that was used at Fairchild and other military installations for some 45 years before officials acknowledged it had seeped into aquifers that supply tens of millions of Americans with drinking water.

The Department of Corrections says the pollution required it to pay for water testing and forced its business division, Correctional Industries, to collect and dispose of food products that had been sent to a dozen Washington prisons and more than 70 other customers, including a Meals on Wheels charity.

Correctional Industries employs state prison inmates, for as little as $1 an hour, to make furniture, stamp license plates and cook food, among other services. The prison system’s food factory is at Airway Heights.

“The mitigation and testing required to address the 2017 water contamination was substantial,” state Corrections spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said in an email Friday. “Some of the significant expenses resulting from the contamination included staff overtime, external water sources and recall and replacement of food produced at the facility. The department hopes the court will recognize these hardships and direct adequate compensation be provided to recoup the state’s losses.”

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians, which runs Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights, recently filed a similar lawsuit against the government and foam makers, including 3M Co. The tribe says its business was harmed in 2017 when the city realized its tap system contained unsafe levels of the chemicals known as PFAS.

Fairchild officials first acknowledged in early 2017 that groundwater in the area had been contaminated by the firefighting foam, which contains PFAS. 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 Scotchgard, 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.

Hundreds of newer lawsuits – including a class action filed in 2018 on behalf of West Plains landowners – have been consolidated into a major multidistrict case being heard in South Carolina. The complex case could involve billions of dollars in liability claims. The Kalispel Tribe anticipates its claims will become part of the multidistrict case as well.

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.

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