Millions of years ago, lava poured through Eastern Washington, cooling and hardening to form the foundation of this land. Then, near the end of the last ice age, massive floods carved out river channels that would then be filled with sediment and groundwater as glaciers crept northward.
In late August, Chad Pritchard, a hydrogeologist at Eastern Washington University, drove his white minivan along Craig Road in Airway Heights. He pointed to power lines along the road. One of those ancient rivers, or paleochannels, lies beneath them, he explained.
Today, groundwater in the West Plains near Spokane flows northeast and supplies hundreds of residential wells with drinking water.
But on top of this complex, underground water system sit two of Eastern Washington’s largest airports: Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International.
Pritchard’s research of the waters’ movement through these communities, and recent testing by homeowners, the military and local governments, are illuminating a hidden threat below.
For decades, airports like these across the U.S. were obligated to train with firefighting foams containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Now these substances, also known as “forever chemicals” for their pervasiveness, are turning up in groundwater, in one well after another. The chemicals have been linked to several health disorders, including cancer.
In 2017, Fairchild Air Force Base acknowledged its responsibility for widespread drinking water contamination in Airway Heights, to the northeast, leading the Department of Defense to designate a testing zone and to test some residents’ wells.
What is known about the scope of contamination continues to grow.
Documents obtained by a resident through a public records request this spring revealed that Spokane International Airport detected the chemicals in its groundwater, also in 2017.
But airport authorities did not report this to the state, regional health district or surrounding community.
After the resident provided the documents to the state, the Department of Ecology in July added the airport to its list of sites contaminated with PFAS and designated the airport – and the city and county of Spokane, which own and manage it – as responsible parties for the contamination.
Airport officials began cleanup negotiations with the state earlier this month.
Airport CEO Lawrence Krauter did not respond to requests for an interview, nor did Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and all but one airport board member.
“We can’t fix who caused it. We can only address how to solve it,” county commissioner and airport board secretary Al French said at a Sept. 1 meet-and-greet event in Cheney, when asked about the contamination.
Airport spokesperson Todd Woodard provided a written response to the Seattle Times’ requests for comment.
Woodard said the airport has publicly shared information about its use of firefighting foams since 2017 and that the airport’s PFAS test results have been available via a public records request.
“It’s important to note the evolution of PFAS understanding, awareness and reporting standards nationally and statewide during this era,” Woodard wrote. “Specifically in 2017, the Department of Ecology had not yet formulated mandatory reporting requirements for PFAS. There was no requirement to report in 2017 or 2019.”
That changed in 2021, when Ecology included PFAS in its list of hazardous substances, making it mandatory to report any known release of these chemicals to the environment, past or present.
The airport itself does not draw from its groundwater for use at the airport. It receives drinking water from the city of Spokane, sourced from the Spokane River. It is not known whether the airport’s groundwater has contributed to the contamination of drinking water in the area.
Private well owners have had little access to information about the contamination, leaving them to wonder whether their water is safe to drink. They have few protections or little recourse even as new state drinking water testing requirements and federal health safety guidelines roll out.
This year, it became mandatory for all public water systems in Washington to test for PFAS. The Department of Health offers technical guidance for those that find PFAS in their public systems.
But those relying on private wells have no testing obligations, and instead must rely on their local health district for information.
Meanwhile, in Spokane County a coalition of residents has filled the void and worked to spread awareness of the contamination, answer neighbors’ questions, coordinate testing of their wells and press local and military authorities for action.
Marcie Zambryski was on a fly-fishing trip in summer of 2022 on the Kenai River in Alaska when her sister at home in rural Spokane County got a call from the Air Force.
“They just said, ‘Stop drinking the water,’ ” Zambryski said.
A few weeks later, Air Force officials reported that her drinking water had levels of PFAS above what was considered safe to drink.
Zambryski’s husband was supposed to be with her on that trip to Alaska, but instead she ended up spreading his ashes in the Kenai. He had died in 2021 after fighting for seven years, first against thyroid complications and later pancreatic cancer.
“Did he die from the water?” Zambryski said, “He could have. Did he die from something else causing his cancer? He could have. We don’t know. We just won’t know.”
Just over a year later, Zambryski’s mother, who lived in their Spokane County home, died of a rare form of breast cancer.
Zambryski grew disappointed and frustrated with the lack of information she had received from her inquiries to the Air Force.
She sought help from a friend up the creek, John Hancock. He soon convened a few informal meetings of his neighbors to discuss contaminated water that threatened an unknown number of families west of Spokane, near the airports.
That group soon became the West Plains Water Coalition, an organization that aims to step in where authorities fail to inform and educate local residents about their unique risk of tainted water.
At a March coalition gathering, residents placed white stickers on a map of the region. Each represented their well and PFAS test results. Numbers on the dots ranged from single digits to more than 500 parts per trillion, thousands of times higher than the health safety concentrations proposed this year by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some, untested, only had a question mark.
They were bounded by the Spokane River on the east, Riverside State Park to the north, I-90 to the south and Deep Creek to the west.
Many of the private wells fall outside the Air Force’s testing area. Some residents have shelled out hundreds of dollars to test their wells. The sporadic results show wide variations even between next-door neighbors in the over 100-square-mile area encompassing the airport, the military base and the communities around them.
When Balmer Garden’s community well, which serves fewer than a dozen homes on Balmer Road about 4 miles northwest of the Spokane airport, came back positive for the chemicals, the only place to look for help was Hancock and the coalition.
The community’s water association let everyone on the road know it would be their own responsibility to get clean water.
According to a preliminary analysis by Eastern Washington University’s Pritchard, people in the area are likely affected by drinking water contamination from the airport, from Fairchild or from other sources, such as fire districts.
Hancock said state and federal agencies have shown they don’t have experience with pollution of a “whole aquifer.”
The Spokane Regional Health District encouraged the creation of the West Plains Water Coalition and the Palisades neighborhood group. It also sent notices to well drillers about the possibility of water contamination and requested the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sample the blood of residents in Airway Heights. The results showed concentrations of some PFAS in their blood up to 56 times higher than the national average.
But without clear state guidelines by the time the contamination was discovered, the district had little authority to help the residents, said Mike LaScuola, technical adviser for environmental resources at the health district.
“The system wasn’t very ready to actually solve this problem,” Hancock said. “And the solutions are being made up as we go.”
Wading through the knee-high grasses where dozens of dairy cows once grazed, about a mile northeast of Spokane International Airport, David Snipes stopped and pointed his cane. Cool, greenish water welled to the surface.
“That’s all we drank,” Snipes said of his family and their cattle. “I don’t know what is in there.”
Here, his parents taught him how to make a living off the land, raising cattle and selling milk. He has lived most of his 70 years in the home his father built.
After hearing the news about Fairchild in spring 2017, he wrote an email to Krauter, Spokane airport’s CEO, asking if the airport had ever used the toxic firefighting foams that the Air Force base had, and if the airport had tested their wells, too.
Krauter responded the following day, May 19.
“I can certainly appreciate your concern given all of the media coverage of the Fairchild/Airway Heights situation,” Krauter wrote. “Fortunately, we do not have any kind of situation here … Accordingly, we do not have cause to be interested in testing groundwater.”
But four days later, the airport began sampling its monitoring wells for PFAS, and would continue to do it for at least two years.
Months earlier, the governor’s office had inquired about the use of PFAS firefighting foam at the airport, as part of an evaluation of all state airports. In an email Dec. 6, 2016, Woodard, the airport’s director of marketing and public affairs, informed Krauter that the airport had “a fire training pit site” that was used for decades by the military, but it was uncertain whether PFAS foams were sprayed there. He also let Krauter know the airport had on hand about 1,600 gallons of PFAS firefighting foam.
Woodard informed the governor’s office about the stock of PFAS foam at the airport. He also told the office, on Krauter’s suggestion, that “we believe that the airport had a fire training site, but that it pre-dates (20+ years) the current staff’s institutional knowledge.”
Krauter did not mention this history, nor the planned well tests, to Snipes in their email exchange.
Woodard told the Times the airport responded “with the best information available at the time” and that Snipes was “satisfied with the information and no follow-up concerns were raised.”
“So, he pretty much lied to me,” Snipes said, after the Seattle Times shared the airport’s test results, which showed PFAS groundwater concentrations up to 90 times higher than the federal health safety regulations at the time. “And when the government lies, I don’t like it.”
Shortly after the Air Force announced it had contaminated drinking water in the area in 2017, concerned neighbors whose wells fell outside the military base’s testing area sought help determining the safety of their water.
Public concern about the contamination was growing. That’s when Pritchard applied for a grant from the Department of Ecology to fund research about how PFAS moves in the region’s groundwater.
He proposed to sample individual drinking water wells, map out groundwater movement and analyze chemical compounds to identify potential sources of contamination. The results could help residents understand the safety of their water and where the contamination came from.
In 2021, Ecology awarded Spokane Regional Health District $450,000 for the study. The health district, lacking appropriate resources, requested the county accept and manage the grant.
The county never accepted the state’s offer.
Airport officials employ lobbyists who have worked to oppose state regulation of local airports and delay a federal mandate for airports to phase out the use of PFAS foams.
The law firm K&L Gates was working for the airport in 2019 to monitor a proposed federal law that would classify PFAS as hazardous. Airport officials were scheduled to meet with members of Congress, such as Cathy McMorris Rodgers, to “encourage” them to oppose it, according to internal emails about the meetings.
In Washington state, Krauter lobbied state lawmakers to oppose legislation that would set a more aggressive timeline than that established by federal law to phase out PFAS foams.
“We do not want to see precedent set for the state to attempt to regulate airports that are already federally regulated,” Krauter wrote in an internal email.
This summer, after the resident shared the airport’s groundwater test results with Ecology, an attorney representing the airport in an Aug. 7 letter sought to remove “the (Spokane International Airport)-related PFAS information” from Ecology’s website that lists cleanup sites. He also asked the state to refrain from making public statements or sharing information regarding the cleanup until state and local officials met face-to-face.
“The Airport takes its role in providing public services and its responsibilities to the local community very seriously,” wrote Jeffrey Longsworth, the lawyer representing the airport, in the letter. “Unnecessary and unfounded negative actions against it can damage its reputation and community role as well as harm the Airport economically.”
‘You’d be fighting for them, too’
On a September day, some residents’ distress over drinking water boiled over inside a small muggy diner in Cheney.
At one table, members of the West Plains Water Coalition spouted concerns during a meet and greet with French, the county commissioner.
They told him they were offended he continued to ignore their pleas for testing and resources to educate the community about PFAS risks. They said much of the community is impoverished without the time or money to determine if their water is safe to drink.
Some residents are shelling out thousands of dollars to test and treat their own wells. But in a county with an average income of about $30,000, many can’t afford the luxury of clean water.
“There are dead people in every quadrant of my neighborhood,” a resident told French. “ … If you had the neighbors I had, now deceased, you’d be fighting for them, too.”
French told the Times he couldn’t comment further about the contamination because of litigation. He did not specify what the litigation was related to.
In August, the city of Medical Lake accepted the Ecology grant for Pritchard’s study that was first offered to Spokane County. This winter, as Pritchard begins sampling drinking water wells and modeling the flow of contaminated water, residents are hopeful they will finally get some answers.