About this time two years ago, the Air Force knocked on Kevin Anderson's office door to ask if they could test Airway Heights' drinking water.
Anderson, the city's public works director, said, "Of course," not realizing just how significant those results would soon become.
About a week later, the city learned its three main wells contained high levels of PFOS and PFOA, members of a family of persistent nonstick chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS) that had been used in firefighting foam on Fairchild Air Force Base for decades.
Where Environmental Protection Agency guidelines recommended no more than 70 parts per trillion for health advisory limits — that's less than a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool — the city's wells came back with results in the low thousands.
Three crazy weeks followed, Anderson says. The city shut off its wells, issued an emergency declaration, and the Air Force handed out bottled water to residents in the city of nearly 10,000; milk trucks were brought in and cleaned to ship water to manufacturers in the area; an emergency contract with the city of Spokane was drawn up so Airway Heights could temporarily buy more water from an existing water line it usually only draws from in summer.
At first, Airway Heights staff thought they could try simply flushing an accumulation of the chemicals out of their system, Anderson says. They were sorely mistaken.
"We were hoping it wouldn't take too long. We were not correct. Talk about persistence in the environment? It was persistent in our pipes," Anderson says. "Half of our water supply was out of commission. The only water we had that was free of contaminants came from the city of Spokane."
That's still the case. Because the existing pipe system connecting Airway Heights to Spokane water could only handle about 1,500 gallons per minute, the two later reached a new contract to install a second connection that could be used to meet the rest of the need for up to five years.
By July 2018, that new connection was in service. Airway Heights continues to get 100 percent of its water from Spokane, with the Air Force paying for the costs that go above and beyond the city's usual costs in years past, Anderson says.
Now, the West Plains city is still working with the Air Force, state Department of Health and various agencies to figure out short and long-term fixes for its water supply, Anderson says. Buying water from Spokane is expensive, and with other unknowns about chemical plumes, the city could be looking for a new place to tap into the groundwater.
One of the largest temporary fixes for Airway Heights is a new Granular Activated Carbon filtration system installed on the city's Well No. 9.
Monday morning, April 22, it's warm and windy as Anderson walks around the eight-tank system, stepping over hoses and past pipes as he describes how the Air Force installed the more than $1 million structure by the end of September 2018.
"This well pumps about 1,200 gallons per minute," Anderson says. "That's about half our total water supply."
The good news, he says, is that tests in October showed that water run through the filtration system didn't detect the harmful PFAS chemicals, meaning the process works.
The bad news is that the water was coming out milky white — the result of millions of microbubbles. They're harmless and will settle if a glass of water is left to sit, he says, but they were understandably aesthetically concerning for residents.
"We're doing some troubleshooting on it this week," Anderson says. "We're hopeful the problem gets solved and we're back up and operational some time next month."
Still, the filtration system can only be used during warm months, and even then, it's only likely to be a temporary fix to the larger problem, maybe for the next couple of years at most, he says.
PFAS are just the latest branch of chemicals to come up as serious concerns associated with the Superfund site that is Fairchild. Other harmful chemicals were discovered decades ago and continue to be treated. While filtration is working for the known problems, Anderson says, it's not clear what unknown chemicals of concern the future might hold.
"I think everyone would feel better if we had a completely clean source of water," he says.
To get there could require drilling a new well or wells, and the city might use a combination of filtration and new water supplies in order to meet its demands, Anderson says. That could run into tricky territory with negotiating water rights.
"We have sufficient water rights for many years of growth up here, but that assumes water is being taken out of the aquifers it's assigned to," Anderson says. "So if we move to a different location, how can we make that transaction occur?"
Because the Air Force has been a very cooperative partner, it's unlikely Airway Heights residents would be saddled with large infrastructure costs associated with getting new water resources put in place, Anderson says.
But the answer won't necessarily come easy. Planning partners, including attorneys, military representatives, hydrologists and more, only just kicked off an in-depth look at long-term solutions in January, he says. They'll have to sift through a slew of options to make sure they meet the city's criteria, and also make sure they're feasible and legal, which is no insignificant undertaking.
"We don't yet even have the universe of options we're even looking at," Anderson says. "Any way we go, there's gonna be risks." ♦
Part of the issue with PFAS chemicals is that they stick around in the environment and are incredibly hard to break down due to the strong carbon-fluorine bonds they're made of. They're used in everything from nonstick pans and furniture Scotch guarding to popcorn bags.
Because of their wide ranging uses, PFAS chemicals could be found in blood tests for nearly every American. More research is needed to understand their health impacts, but the chemicals have been linked with higher risks of some kinds of cancer, kidney problems, fertility problems and more.
The state and federal government are studying the issue further. Washington recently banned the use of PFAS in food packaging where other nontoxic options exist. The state Department of Ecology is conducting a study that will inform regulation of that and another law banning certain firefighting foams containing the chemicals.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced it will study the effects of PFAS exposure by testing residents on a voluntary basis at eight different sites throughout the country, including near Fairchild Air Force Base. The study will be designed to select for a variety of households, and people won't be able to volunteer to give blood and urine samples for the study unless their address is one of those selected for the research. Details of how that study will operate are still coming together.