Though groundwater contamination in the West Plains is well-documented, many residents are still in the dark about whether their private well has been filled for years with dangerous PFAS chemicals.
Amid outcry of a slow-moving cleanup, the Washington Department of Ecology plans to provide free well testing to the residents of the West Plains who get their water from private wells. Funded by the EPA, the testing program will also provide assistance in obtaining safe water to households with high levels of PFAS in their wells.
According to agency public outreach coordinator Erika Beresovoy, Ecology plans to test approximately 300 private wells in the coming months.
“We know people are concerned about their water, and so we want to make sure people know whether they are drinking safe water,” Beresovoy said. “Also, having that data will help us better understand how contamination is moving in that area and where it is.”
Ecology hopes to begin allowing residents to sign up for well testing in a few weeks. Once the EPA team conducting the tests is mobilized, Beresovoy expects the tests to take place within one or two weeks of a household signing up. Once sampled, results for a given well will be available approximately a month later.
The wells will be tested for per- and polyfluoroalkyl – PFAS, a family of over 10,000 long-lasting human-made chemicals used in commercial and industrial products.
Dubbed “forever chemicals,” depending upon their forms, PFAS can take decades to dissipate in the environment or to metabolize out of the body. Because of the chemicals’ widespread use, most people in the United States and around the world have some level of PFAS circulating in their body.
The West Plains has been exposed to high levels of the chemicals from firefighting foam that was used at Fairchild Air Force Base and the Spokane International Airport. Ecology is conducting an investigation and cleanup at the International Airport in a process separate from this well-testing program.
Depending upon the form of PFAS, chemical is dangerous if it exceeds between 10 and 345 parts per trillion, according to the state. When a given tested well exceeds safe levels of a PFAS variant, Ecology will provide bottled water to the household.
West Plains Water Coalition President John Hancock called the well testing “great news.”
In a statement, Hancock said free well tests do “two important things”: the program helps families to know how safe their water is “and pushes toward the geographical facts of high- and low-risk neighborhoods in the big picture of PFAS spread toward the Spokane River.”
Though well-testing outside of this area may be possible, Ecology will prioritize wells that range from the Spokane River to the east, Hayford Road to the west and I-90 to the south. Those who would like their well tested should sign up to receive email updates from Ecology at ecology.wa.gov/spills-cleanup/contamination-cleanup/cleanup-sites/west-plains-pfas.
Fairchild Air Force base has been conducting well testing for many West Plains residents west of Hayford Road. Those who believe they may be eligible for Fairchild testing can contact its public affairs office at 509-247-5705.
According to the Air force base website, Fairchild has tested 427 private wells as of December , and 107 of those wells have tested over 70 PFAS parts per trillion.
Over the next year, Eastern Washington University professor Chad Pritchard is conducting a study on the PFAS in West Plains underground water, which will require his own well testing.
“Because those in the Fairchild sampling area are already having their wells regularly monitored, we selected a prioritized area that is outside of theirs. But any sampling that people may have done … would not preclude people participating in this,” she said, though people whose wells haven’t been tested will be prioritized.
Chuck Danner is a West Plains resident living east of Hayford Road. Last year, he tried to have his well tested by Fairchild and said they refused. He hopes to have the testing done by Ecology.
“I don’t feel I should have to pay to get their chemicals out of my well,” he said. “I don’t care who tests my well, I just want it done.”
Danner added that supplying an external source of water is “not enough” for him.
“I want to be able to go to my own tap and drink a glass of water and know it’s safe,” he said.