The Spokane River was among 95 waterways across the United States where researchers this summer detected remnants of a family of harmful chemicals that are in the process of being regulated by federal authorities.
But the levels of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, also known as PFAS, that were discovered downstream of the city’s water treatment plant were much lower than in other parts of the country, and thousands of times less prevalent than was found in the well water near Fairchild Air Force Base that prompted Airway Heights to switch to Spokane’s water supply in 2017.
Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper, characterized the results of the study not as an alarm, but as a notice that the chemicals were not just in the firefighting foam that seeped into the groundwater on the West Plains but also in discontinued versions of common consumer products such as Teflon and Scotchgard. The study was produced by the Waterkeeper Alliance, which is based in New York, and includes data from waterways in 29 states and Washington, D.C.
“We’re not yelling fire in a crowded theater here,” White said, after emphasizing that the Spokane River remains safe to swim in. “This stuff is everywhere, and what this says is we do have it in surface water.”
The city of Spokane also tests for PFAS in its drinking water, pursuant to state and federal guidelines that are being finalized following the discovery of the family of chemicals in groundwater systems near military bases and further study of their health effects over the past several years. Spokane’s tests have not detected the family of chemicals in water residents drink, including those in the city of Airway Heights who are now drinking Spokane’s water.
The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of establishing a national drinking water standard for two of the most common chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, an initial version of which is anticipated this year with a final rule in 2023. The Washington Department of Health last year for five types of substances established what are known as state action levels, concentrations at which water systems must inform their customers of detection and take efforts to remove contaminants.
The Spokane River, tested this summer downstream from the Spokane Riverside Water Reclamation Facility, was positive for two types of PFAS, at concentrations of 1.7 and 1.6 parts per trillion, respectively. Both of those are well below the Department of Health’s state action levels, which are 15 parts per trillion and 65 parts per trillion, respectively.
In other words, the concentrations of the chemicals in the water in Spokane River meets the standard that state health officials have said is safe to drink. It’s also well below the levels seen in 2017 in Airway Heights wells after the contamination was discovered, which totaled between 1,400 parts per trillion and 1,520 parts per trillion. Some private wells had contamination topping 5,700 parts per trillion.
That doesn’t mean local regulators won’t have to deal with the contamination in the future, White said.
“We wanted to simply say, we want to see if we pick this stuff up,” White said. “If we do, let’s start moving ourselves to an effective understanding of what it means.”
The Spokane River’s concentrations were much lower than many of the other detections made in the report. For example, Piscataway Creek in Maryland showed a concentration of PFOA at 1,364.7 parts per trillion, compared to Spokane’s 1.7 parts per trillion. Kreutz Creek in Pennsylvania had a concentration of PFHxA, another type of PFAS, at 607.1 parts per trillion, compared to Spokane’s 1.6 parts per trillion.
Marlene Feist, public works director for the city of Spokane, said it’s not surprising the chemicals appear in the water system. They’re known as “forever chemicals,” the same family of substances that aren’t broken down in nature that include polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are also present in the Spokane River and have been the source of years of at-times contentious rulemaking between governments, businesses, environmental groups and regulators.
“It is in those things that we collect through stormwater,” Feist said.
The city has not been tracking PFAS coming into or going out of their treatment facility because they haven’t been required to by state regulators, Feist said. But the smaller amounts in the Spokane River compared to other water systems could show that the filtration techniques, recently upgraded at the facility, could be effective at also removing PFAS, Feist said.
“As much as we do to remove any pollutant, that means we’re making an impact,” she said.
The city of Spokane recently received a new permit for discharging treated wastewater back into the river from the Ecology Department. That permit did not include an allowable limit for PFAS, though some residents – and the Spokane Riverkeeper – requested the document include one.
“It would allow us to get our arms around the extent of this issue,” White said.
But Ecology did not have a federal criteria to point to in developing their discharge permit for the city of Spokane, the department wrote in July in response to the requests for a limit written into Spokane’s permit. They also pointed to a 2016 study Ecology conducted looking at PFAS in waterways throughout the state, finding that the Spokane River had among the lowest concentrations of PFAS among the bodies of water included. West Medical Lake, nearer the site of the Fairchild Air Force Base contamination, had the highest concentrations among the water sources Ecology studied.
“I think it’s important to note that we share the Riverkeeper’s concerns with PFAS contamination,” Stephanie May, communications manager for the Ecology Department’s Eastern Regional Office, wrote in an email. “Washington has been a national leader in taking actions to reduce the risk of PFAS contamination but there is still a lot to learn about the level of risk these chemicals pose.”
That’s the message White hopes is communicated through the Waterkeeper report.
“It’s the next level of things that we need to be understanding and protecting our waterways against,” he said. “This just fits into that effort.”
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