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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Commissioner Al French proposes ambitious PFAS solution for new water source on the West Plains. Some remain skeptical

The lower falls of the Spokane River are pictured in March 2022.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County Commissioner Al French is proposing an ambitious plan to bring a new water source to the PFAS-contaminated West Plains – possibly as soon as next summer.

First discovered by Fairchild Air Force Base in 2017, the dangerous chemicals saturate the groundwater across the West Plains. While cleanup planning has begun at Fairchild and Spokane International Airport, making water west of Spokane safe is still years away.

Known as “forever chemicals,” perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a set of man-made chemicals used in thousands of products over the decades, including firefighting foam used at the airport and Air Force base. High levels of the chemicals have since been linked to cancers, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight and other diseases.

French’s solution is not to treat the groundwater that has been contaminated but to bring a new water source to the West Plains. The county currently treats eight million gallons a day at the Spokane County Regional Water Reclamation Facility. The Spokane Valley facility treats sewage and then distributes the clean water into the Spokane River.

By bringing a whole new source of drinking water to the area, French hopes to avoid having to tackle the difficult prospect of treating the contamination. As a representative of the West Plains and a member of the airport board, French has local ties to the area and indicated that he is among those with a responsibility to try to find solutions. Even so, his plan involves numerous obstacles and would require many agreements from other stakeholders.

Central to French’s pitch is that the West Plains cannot rely on the Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Ecology to come in and provide a solution to PFAS contamination.

“You look at the EPA, you look at Ecology – they are both enforcement agencies. They’re not agencies that design solutions. They regulate what the solutions are,” French said. “Nobody’s coming to help us. We’ve got to develop our own solutions and our own path forwards to address the contamination.”

Instead of bringing the water into the ecosystem as a whole, French wants to divert the water from the Spokane River to the West Plains. According to him, the many millions of gallons a day processed by the county are enough to support 80,000 residents, more than all those currently living on the West Plains.

Trust agreement with tribes

Since the former wastewater is no longer property of Spokane County once it is deposited in the river, the county would need to develop a trust agreement with an entity that has water rights to the Spokane River.

In Washington, a water right is needed to use water systems for commercial and personal uses. The aim is to develop a trust with Spokane River water rights holders to take out the 8 million gallons of water they put in the river each day. In this way, the river would be used as a conveyor belt bringing the water from the valley to the west of the city of Spokane.

To French, the most logical partners in this endeavor are one or both of the tribes with ancestral land in the area that have the most senior water rights of all. According to French, he has spoken with representatives of both the Spokane Tribe and Kalispel Tribe about the idea.

Spokane Tribe of Indians Council Chair Greg Abrahamson said he has had a meeting with French to discuss his plan. Since that time, the tribal council has not met to discuss whether to enter into a trust agreement. Asked what the provisions of a possible trust agreement could be, Abrahamson said discussions were in their “very early stages” and it was “premature” to discuss specifics.

A representative for the Kalispel Tribe did not immediately answer a request for comment from The Spokesman-Review.

French noted that either or both tribes would be compensated if a trust agreement is made, although he declined to speculate what costs such a move would entail for the county. If both of the tribes decline his offer, he would move down the list of water rights holders, including the state government.

“We would be putting water in and taking water out. We’ll never take more water out than we’ll put in,” he said of the proposed water trust.

If that first major hurdle in French’s plan is reached, the county would need a mechanism by which the water would go from the Spokane River to Airway Heights, and then all the private well owners in the West Plains who have been impacted by PFAS contamination.

Fairchild on French plan

Though Fairchild Airforce Base was the first to discover PFAS in the groundwater in and around the base, Fairchild never has used that water for its operations. Instead, the base has a well at Seven Mile Road that pipes water to the base nearly 20 miles away.

French claims the Air Force has already appropriated funds to expand their piping system to take the water out of the Spokane River at Seven Mile and then bring it to Airway Heights’ municipal water system.

“The Department of Defense has said through the Air Force that they will pay for the drilling of a new well and pay for the construction of the pipe to get from that well up to Airway Heights,” French said, noting construction is on hold until a water trust is agreed upon.

Fairchild spokesperson Sidney Walters said the Air Force is “aware” of French’s plan and “appreciates all local elected leaders and governmental agencies who are working towards long-term solutions.”

“The Air Force is committed to supporting appropriate long-term solutions once the feasibility and legalities have been sufficiently evaluated. However, it is too early in the process to endorse or commit to funding of a particular plan. We look forward to continued discussions with all stakeholders, as it will take the participation of elected leaders and governmental agencies collectively to work these long-term solutions,” Walters said in a statement.

The plan also would need approval from Ecology at the state level. Department spokesperson Erika Beresovoy said Ecology has not yet received a formal proposal from French.

“We’re supportive of creative thinking to identify a long-term water supply solution for communities in the West Plains. But it is important to note that any adjustment to the County’s eight (million gallons a day) wastewater discharge would require a thorough investigation and evaluation. We’re committed to additional conversations as the workgroup Commissioner French is putting together explores options for clean drinking water,” Beresovoy said in a statement.

Could the West Plains become a superfund?

The last and perhaps biggest hurdle of French’s plan is how to get this new water source from Airway Heights to the hundreds of private well owners across the West Plains who are without clean drinking water. For this final phase, French hopes to harness the power of the EPA.

The West Plains has not been listed as a federal superfund site, the program through which the EPA forces responsible parties to conduct cleanup of contamination or to pay for it. Instead, the cleanup at Spokane International Airport is being overseen by the state Department of Ecology, while the federal government is overseeing its own cleanup at Fairchild.

EPA Region 10 spokesperson Bill Dunbar said the EPA has not been presented with French’s plan, and they are not considering a superfund designation for the West Plains.

“We’ve not heard anything about this. We are not contemplating a superfund listing. It is not part of any discussion we’ve had,” Dunbar said.

If the West Plains is declared a superfund site by the EPA, French hopes to use federal funds to build piping to all of the private wells affected by PFAS. According to French, the use of a superfund designation to get funds for his plan was suggested in a conversation earlier this year with EPA Region 10 administrator Casey Sixkiller, who oversees the federal agency in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Dunbar disputed French’s characterization.

“Regional Administrator Sixkiller was not presented with a formal or informal proposal by Commissioner French. Rather, he expressed support for the creativity the multiple parties have used to address the problems in West Plains and Airway Heights, including EPA’s unique use of emergency response funds to quickly sample West Plains wells,” he said in a statement.

French said he has a 20-year history with Sixkiller and he had not misinterpreted their conversations. French additionally claimed he and Sixkiller had a second private discussion about a superfund designation while at an Airway Heights news conference in March.

Once this new water source is in place, it remains unclear under what framework the water would be distributed. French suggested a regional water utility could be created to manage the water supply. But that raises the question whether this new water would be freely distributed to those hurt by PFAS or would be a new expense placed upon them.

Asked whether residents would need to pay for the water like any other utility, French said it was too early to know.

“You’re asking me to speculate on a concept. I don’t know,” French said.

With whatever solution is found, French emphasized the federal government needs to be the one funding the solution to the problem they created mandating airports use firefighting foam laced with PFAS.

While French’s ambitious plan has many roadblocks before it can be put in place, the county commissioner says it is the only “only solution” of which he is aware.

“I’ll push it until somebody comes along with a better idea. But at this point, there’s nobody coming to save us if we don’t develop a solution and a mechanism to get clean water ourselves,” he said.

How long until a new water source comes to the West Plains?

French has presented the broad outlines of his plan to Friends of Palisades, an organization based around the preservation of Palisades Park.

In this meeting, French also claimed this project could be completed by the end of next summer – just over a year from now. Several West Plains residents have expressed skepticism French could coordinate all of these governmental entities and construct the necessary piping and wells in just a year.

West Plains Water Coalition President John Hancock said he “applauds the goal of the plan” but said French was “minimizing the difficulty” of the project.

West Plains resident Chuck Danner was more blunt in his assessment.

“There’s no way it could work, especially in that timeline. It’s ridiculous on its face,” he said. Danner dismissed the whole plan as “campaign talk” of a politician up for re-election in the fall.

Molly Marshall, French’s opponent in the race for Spokane County Commissioner, called his PFAS plan “very broad with not a lot of specifics.” Asked how she would tackle the issue differently, Marshall said she would have more transparency than French and hold meetings with all stakeholders.

Asked about the summer 2025 deadline, French clarified what he meant in the April 23 meeting with his constituents.

“I said, from my standpoint, I’d like to have this thing in place by next summer. That’s what I’m pushing for. Now, will people stand in my way? Probably,” he said. “I’d love to be able to do it by next summer. If it takes to the summer after that or the summer after that, then it’s because somebody else has stood in my way.”

Reporter Nick Gibson contributed to this article.