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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airway Heights moving forward with new well plans as federal regulators target PFAS in drinking water

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)

The city of Airway Heights this week is making its case that a new well over the Spokane aquifer will not cause environmental problems, even as some remain wary about the potential effect of a new well near the river.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its first drinking water standards for the family of chemicals that were found in Airway Heights wells six years ago. That discovery, and the finding of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in wells surrounding military bases that had used a certain type of firefighting foam caused many public water systems including Airway Heights to halt pumping.

The contamination in Airway Heights wells is believed to have been caused by use of that foam at Fairchild Air Force Base. The discovery also spurred several lawsuits and studies of the substances that are ubiquitous but also tied to health problems, including increased risk of some cancers, immune system disorders and birth defects, according to the EPA.

Almost two years ago, Airway Heights applied for what’s known as a mitigated water right. That means it would be giving up some of the rights to the water it can pump from the Columbia River Basalt Group paleochannel aquifer system, or those made up of sand and gravel, and instead draw from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the same 10 trillion-gallon water source that provides drinking water for tens of thousands of customers in and around Spokane and Kootenai counties. For the past six years, it has also been serving Airway Heights, as the city entered into an agreement to buy water from Spokane when it shuttered the contaminated wells after the discovery in 2017.

Airway Heights on Monday submitted what’s known as a “mitigated determination of nonsignificance” to state regulators, arguing that the proposal “will not have a probable significant adverse impact on the environment.” Airway Heights is planning to construct a well in an area along the Spokane River near the Seven Mile Natural Area.

Albert Tripp, city administrator for Airway Heights, said the city hopes to have a well drilled by next April with pumping stations and a water main installed by the end of 2024.

Both the Washington Department of Ecology and Tripp said the fact that the water they are using in mitigation has been found to have contamination should not affect their request to draw up to 2,500 gallons per minute from a new well over the Spokane aquifer.

“The PFAS contamination found in the current city wells does not preclude them from using the underlying authorizations for mitigation,” wrote Stephanie May, communications manager for the Ecology Department’s Eastern Region, in an email. “For the mitigated water right, we focus on the overall quantity and want to ensure there will be no new impacts to the river.”

Some, including Spokane city officials and the Spokane Riverkeeper, say they’re concerned about those impacts.

Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, said this week he hadn’t reviewed the latest submission from Airway Heights but remains concerned about whether instream flows required on the Spokane River by the Department of Ecology can be met as demand increases.

In December 2021, both City Council President Breean Beggs and Mayor Nadine Woodward sent a letter to Airway Heights disputing the negligible effects of a new well. Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the city’s Public Works division, said the city was reviewing the submission by Airway Heights and would comment by a March 27 deadline.

Beggs said on Thursday he also had not yet reviewed Airway Heights’ latest material. While acknowledging that it was “a challenging situation,” Beggs said it should be incumbent upon Airway Heights to provide “definitive answers” as to whether the water from their aquifer flows to the Spokane River, and whether there was PFAS in the water that made it to the river.

Spokane is scheduled, as are other cities across the state, to begin testing for several PFAS compounds in their water systems this year. The Washington state Department of Health created those standards in 2021, and the first collected data from water systems in Washington should be available from the agency “within a couple of weeks,” said Roberto Bonaccorso, a spokesman for the Health Department, in an email Thursday. Spokane plans to begin testing for the compounds next month, Davis said.

Previous tests have not detected the chemicals in Spokane’s drinking water, as described in the city’s most recent water quality report. However, a national study conducted last summer did find detectable levels of two types of chemicals in the Spokane River, which recharges the aquifer. But those levels were far below what state regulators have said so far is safe to drink.

On Tuesday, the EPA released its own guidelines for the acceptable amount of a half-dozen compounds of PFAS in the nation’s drinking water systems. The standards for two common compounds, PFOS and PFOA, are more stringent than those adopted by the state’s Department of Ecology, but the readings of both found in the Spokane River last summer would still fall within the boundaries federal regulators have currently deemed safe to drink.

“EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” said Michael Regan, EPA administrator, in announcing the new standards. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

The EPA set limits for PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion. Sampling of Airway Heights wells in 2017 produced PFOS readings of up to 1,200 parts per trillion, and PFOA up to 320 parts per trillion.

A public hearing will be held in May by the EPA on the new proposed limits, and it intends to finalize a rule by the end of 2023. If approved, states would have to adopt standards that are at least as strict as the federal rule, according to the EPA.