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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airway Heights pushing state to set aside $22M for new water source after contamination by firefighting foam

Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in this May 2017 photo.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Officials in Airway Heights are lobbying state lawmakers to allocate $22 million to help them dig a new well after the 2017 discovery of contamination caused by firefighting foam used on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

The request is being made as the state Legislature nears its Friday deadline to pass legislation related to the budget. For the past four years, Airway Heights has been drawing its water exclusively from the city of Spokane to avoid a toxic plume of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the groundwater.

“At the end of the day, our customers and community members, they just want to have a long-term solution to it,” said Albert Tripp, city manager of Airway Heights.

An analysis of the problem showed that digging a new well outside the contaminated area would be the safest and most efficient fix, Tripp said. PFAS, used in the firefighting foam that was part of training exercises on the base for four decades, has been linked in studies to birth defects, cancer and damage to the liver and immune system, according to a lawsuit filed against the federal government and manufacturers by the city of Airway Heights.

The Air Force has been the target of multiple lawsuits by private landowners and the state’s Department of Corrections, which operates the Airway Heights Correctional Center that also drew contaminated water. The Defense Department agreed initially to compensate Airway Heights for some of the extra cost of buying water from the city of Spokane. They have continued to do so but at a flat rate that hasn’t increased with the use of water and rising prices for service, Tripp said.

The Air Force has also contested a claim for damages made against it by Airway Heights and other governments. The case is pending before a U.S. District Court in South Carolina.

A spokeswoman for the base declined comment Wednesday, citing the ongoing litigation.

Tripp said the push for the state to foot the bill for drilling a new well shouldn’t be seen as the city abandoning its desire for the Air Force to help pay for cleaning up the contamination.

“We are still looking for the Air Force to take the appropriate responsibility for the damage it caused to the community,” Tripp said.

The state’s two-year capital budget is in the process of being approved, and projects in all corners of Washington are vying for limited dollars, said state Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, who represents the West Plains. Graham requested funding for the project be included in the state’s capital budget.

“Out of a lot of things, I can’t think of one that was really more important than this,” Graham said.

The House budget proposal includes $16 million toward the digging of the well, while the current version of the Senate proposal doesn’t include any specific dollar amount for the project.

State Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Spokane, said the House bill includes an allocation of federal money as part of the most recent federal coronavirus aid package. He’d like to see what guidance the federal government gives on spending that money before committing a dollar amount to the project, which he said he would be a “strong advocate for” in the Senate.

“I would always rather under-promise and over-deliver,” Holy said.

The question of potential compensation from the Air Force for costs to shift Airway Heights off contaminated water can be decided later, Holy said.

“It doesn’t matter whose fault it was,” he said. “There’s a problem. We have to deal with this.”

The city of Airway Heights has spent $4 million of its own money on short-term solutions for the contaminated wells, Tripp said, and annual costs total $1.3 million. Soon it will be more expensive to not solve the problem than to drill the well, he said.

“When we look at the impact this has on the city, water is key,” he said.