Officials: Water safe to drink after fire foam contamination

The city has flushed millions of gallons of water through the city's pipes and water system hoping to remove the compounds

By Phuong Le and Nicholas K. Geranios
Associated Press

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — Officials in the Spokane suburb of Airway Heights on Thursday said city tap water is now safe to drink, more than three weeks after tests found chemical contamination.

On May 16, residents were told not to drink city water or use it to cook after tests by nearby Fairchild Air Force Base found groundwater tainted with two industrial chemicals used for years in firefighting foam and consumer products such as nonstick cookware.

The latest round of tests found 20 of 21 samples at acceptable levels for the compounds commonly known as PFOS and PFOA, said Airway Heights Assistant Fire Chief Don Malone. Officials have closed off the site where the one sample detected contamination above federal guidelines, he said.

The city has flushed millions of gallons of water through the city's pipes and water system hoping to remove the compounds. And for weeks now residents have been driving up to a station set up behind a grocery store to get bottled water.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued stricter guidelines for human exposure to PFOS and PFOA in May 2016. The agency says new limits were prompted by recent scientific studies linking the chemicals to testicular and kidney cancers, as well as birth defects and liver damage.

Meanwhile, in western Washington, the Navy has been delivering bottled water to about 10 households near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The navy has tested 211 wells in the area since last fall; nine private wells off base have been found to have PFOS and PFOA above federal guidelines.

"The Navy is investigating alternatives for long-term solutions," said naval spokesman Michael Welding.

In response to drinking water problem in the two communities, the Washington Toxics Coalition asked Gov. Jay Inslee to speed up work on a chemical action plan to address perfluorinated compounds. The state has been looking into what recommendations to make to eliminate or reduce their use.

"We've been concerned about the pace of progress," said Erika Schreder, science director with Toxic-Free Future. "The plan is designed to prevent problems like this."

The Department of Ecology formed an advisory committee but met only once early last year.

Ecology spokesman Andrew Wineke said the agency is collecting data and plan more advisory committee meetings.

The agency is working on a study to test common consumer products the chemicals, he said. An environmental monitoring study looking for perfluorinated compounds in fish tissue and osprey eggs is also due out this summer.

Roberta Hanson, 73, of Airway Heights, who went to get her daily supply of bottled water behind a grocery store in Airway Heights Monday, said the inconvenience hasn't bothered her much. But she is worried about how long the water has been contaminated.

"How long before they caught it and did they know and didn't tell us?" she wondered.

Prompted by the EPA's advisory last year, the Air Force began testing bases for foam contamination. It said it has spent at least $152.5 million on its efforts.

Fairchild Air Force officials previously said they're committed to transparency to respond to the situation and investigate the extent of the chemical contamination and which military and non-military sources contributed to it.

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