A major milestone on the West Plains

Timothy Connor

EPA & Ecology build a bridge for private well owners coping with “forever chemical” contamination west of Spokane

Seven years after the discovery of dangerous “forever” chemicals in West Plains groundwater state and federal regulators are essentially doubling the size of area in which private well users will now be eligible for government help.

As of this morning (February 21) the Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are inviting residents in a 90 square-mile swath of the West Plains to apply for free testing for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in well water drawn from the West Plains aquifer.

Three weeks ago, the two agencies made known their intent to initiate a testing program for well owners east of Hayford Road, in an area beyond the boundary of a U.S. Air Force program that, for several years, has been providing testing and remediation for well owners west of Hayford Road.

Today’s announcement goes a step further though.

In a press release issued earlier this morning, the agencies report that if well tests are positive for PFAS above Washington state action levels “the state and local agencies will work with residents to take interim actions, such as supplying safe drinking and cooking water or point-of-use water filtration systems. These initial efforts can help until investigation and cleanup of PFAS sources provide more permanent solutions.”

Youth soccer atop the Airport “paleochannel,” a major groundwater conduit in the area covered by the new program announced today by EPA and Washington’s Department of Ecology

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Today’s announcement was applauded by the West Plains Water Coalition, a year-old citizen group whose major thrust has been to get help for private well owners down-gradient of Fairchild Air Force Base (FAFB) and the Spokane International Airport (SIA). The long lived PFAS substances were (until recently) key ingredients in aviation fire fighting foams used primarily in training exercises at the two airports. The airports are located near the center of a broad triangle west of the Spokane River and north of Interstate-90 in Spokane County, to the west of the City of Spokane.

“For all of its flaws the Air Force’s program has helped a lot of private well owners in our area”, says coalition co-founder and spokesperson John Hancock. “That [the Air Force’s sampling and remediation program] may be the model that occurs throughout the West Plains, and not just in the Fairchild zone.”


The “Fairchild zone” to which Hancock refers extends roughly ten miles north and 4 miles east of the Air Force base where PFAS contamination has been detected in multiple private wells. For several years the Air Force has offered free testing and, where contamination has been found, bottled water and water filtration systems at government expense. But those services stop at a boundary along Hayford Road, a major West Plains arterial that runs north to south between the two air fields.

The plan announced this morning by Ecology and EPA is a move toward providing comparable access to free testing and clean water to well owners east of the Air Force’s response zone—the red-shaded area in the above illustration—including the Palisades area north of SIA.

The Department of Ecology is currently in negotiations with SIA to move forward with a site investigation and cleanup plan under Washington’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). The airport was cited by Ecology as a “responsible person” under MTCA last summer. One notable difference between the two zones is Washington’s “state action levels” for PFAS are more stringent than the 70 parts per trillion action level currently used as an action level by the Air Force. The 70 ppt standard is likely to be short-lived, though, because new and more stringent federal standards for PFAS in drinking water are expected to be promulgated by EPA later this winter, in which case the Air Force (and the state) will be obliged to align with the new EPA standard(s).

In addition to the link in the second paragraph, above, West Plains residents can read more about the testing program and enroll here if their well(s) are within the red-shaded area in the above map.

In related “forever chemical” news, The Guardian newspaper reports that nation-wide testing by EPA indicates more than half of all Americans are likely to be drinking tap water tainted by PFAS. EPA based its prognosis on on-going nationwide testing for PFAS in drinking water systems, a survey that, thus far, does not include private well owners like those who continue to be at risk on Spokane’s West Plains.

The City of Spokane and Spokane Valley draw drinking water from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie aquifer. As of last June, water testing from multiple city wells resulted in two positive tests that, according to city officials, are “far below state action levels.”