Read the full article by Manuel Villa and Isabella Breda (The Seattle Times)
“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 here 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,’ said county commissioner and airport board secretary Al French, 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 yet 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, and 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.”…