LAKEWOOD, Pierce County — The water pumped from the ground here was once considered pure enough to mix with a little chlorine and then pipe directly to homes.
Today, every gallon from two water district wells must first be flushed through six enormous tanks, each filled with 40,000 pounds of specially treated coal, to remove contaminants.
This pollution, known as “forever chemicals” or PFAS, can increase health risks for certain cancers and other diseases when present in drinking water in minuscule concentrations measured in parts per trillion. Lakewood is one of more than a dozen Washington public water systems with detections above levels defined by the state to be suitable for long-term consumption — and widespread testing is just ramping up.
Massive filtration systems can remove the contamination, but at a steep cost. Lakewood, where PFAS entered the ground from firefighting foams used at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, spent $5.5 million on its system. Through the decades, operating costs and maintenance are forecast to soak up millions of more dollars.
Now, a massive legal battle is playing out across the country as more than 200 providers of public drinking water, including Lakewood, sue manufacturers, distributors and in some cases the Defense Department in federal court to determine who will pay the cleanup bills that will tally in the billions of dollars.
“The frustration is … the cost. We didn’t create this problem. But we have to deal with this,” said Marshall Meyer, engineering manager for Lakewood Water District.
Firefighting foams have emerged as a major source of PFAS contamination. They were first developed by Minnesota-based 3M in collaboration with the Navy. The lawsuits, including five filed by Washington public water systems, allege 3M failed to disclose internal studies dating back to the ’60s documenting the persistence of these chemicals in the environment, their toxicity and their widespread presence in human blood. In 1998, 3M finally shared over 1,200 studies with the Environmental Protection Agency, drawing a $1.5 million fine for failing to report them earlier.
In court and public comments, 3M had denied allegations that corporate officials sought to suppress information about the environmental and health risks of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances..
“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS — including AFFF (aqueous film-forming foams) — and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship,” the company said in a written statement.
In Washington, public water systems with PFAS exceeding the state action levels range from Western Washington communities of Highline and Issaquah to the city of Airway Heights at the eastern edge of the state.
The public water systems now grappling with this pollution collectively serve nearly 570,000 people, 7.4% of the state’s population, according to a Seattle Times analysis of test results. The analysis also shows:
- In Washington, a large cluster of contamination has been found in communities near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where firefighters in the ’70s began training with PFAS foams. Ongoing testing of wells used by Lakewood, Dupont and Roy has detected PFAS in amounts that exceed state action levels.
- Airway Heights, near Fairchild Air Force Base, suffered some of the nation’s worst public drinking water contamination. City officials say an alternative supply now available from Spokane is not enough to meet future needs. A federal public health survey found residents had blood levels for one firefighting-foam chemical 56 times higher than the national average.
- Some sources of drinking water contamination remain a mystery. Vancouver water utility officials said there is “no smoking gun” for the sources of the contamination in six of nine stations that pump from aquifers to supply the residents of the state’s fourth largest city.
- Washington public water systems have responded in different ways to the detection of PFAS. Some, such as Airway Heights, Lakewood and Issaquah, quickly moved to take these wells offline, and develop treatment systems for those that remained in service. Vancouver lacks alternative supplies, and has yet to build treatment systems for wells that test modestly above state action levels. So they remain in use.
The state action levels went into effect in January. They apply to five PFAS compounds, including two — PFOA and PFOS — found early on in firefighting foams. PFAS concentrations at or below those levels are considered safe for someone drinking this water source through the course of their lifetime. Water systems that test over those levels need to inform their customers and investigate the cause.
The state action levels result from a lengthy state Department of Health review of studies that indicate long-term exposure to minute amounts of PFAS can increase risks of kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and harm the immune system. For PFOA, the 10 parts per trillion action level is the equivalent of a half drop placed in an Olympic-sized pool.
So far, more than 600 of the state’s public water systems have voluntarily tested for PFAS, and some 1,900 other public water systems will be required to test for PFAS during the next three years.
The EPA is gearing up for a big federal regulatory move. The agency is expected to soon propose a rule that will establish maximum acceptable levels for some PFAS — and require water systems to keep within those limits in all water delivered to customers.
“Drinking water is one of those things in this state that we expect to be clean and unlimited. But it’s not, at least not anymore,” said Mike Means, a DOH official.
A fight over who will pay
In December 1988, 3M chemist Eric Reiner wrote a memo to his colleagues about the corporation’s firefighting foams formulated with PFAS.
For years, the corporation’s marketing pitch portrayed them as “biodegradable.” Reiner termed this a “myth” that was not in 3M’s long-term term interest to perpetuate.
“It is probable that this misconception will eventually be discovered, and when that happens, 3M will likely be embarrassed, and we and our customers may be fined and forced to immediately withdraw products from the market,” Reiner warned.
3M no longer produces the foams that contained PFOA and PFOS. Reiner’s memo is one of many internal 3M documents put into the public record in the avalanche of litigation now consolidated in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina.
3M and other manufacturers initially sought to have many lawsuits dismissed based on case law that has sometimes granted immunity from liability to contractors supplying products requested by the U.S. military. In a legal brief, their attorneys argued the Defense Department was aware of the health and environmental risks, filing as exhibits numerous Air Force and Navy studies of the firefighting foams.
In a Sept. 16 opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Mark Gergel of South Carolina found 3M and other defendants “knowingly withheld” information detailing the full risks of the product and denied that motion.
Gergel noted that 3M scientists, even after they confirmed PFAS were widespread in blood banks, sought to discount a study published by a Florida medical researcher.
A written statement from 3M expressed disappointment with the ruling but said that defense can still be raised when cases go to trial.
Jeff Kray, an environmental attorney, said the decision “was a big deal. The manufacturers appeared to view that motion as an opportunity to get out of these lawsuits early. And with Judge Gergel’s decision, that’s not an option anymore.”
Kray represents three Washington public water systems that have filed suit, including Lakewood, which seeks as much as $377 million to pay for installing more PFAS treatment systems, and others expenses related to some 55 years of maintaining and operating them.
Defendants in the Lakewood lawsuit include the Air Force and Army, which operate Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the sprawling military installation that covers nearly 91,000 acres south of Tacoma.
Lakewood has long been home to many military personnel, and it was a hub of support for troops deployed during the past two decades to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Lakewood, PFAS has become a divisive issue as the district’s lawsuit accuses base personnel of illegal discharges of PFAS-contaminated water.
For decades, fire crews spread foam mixed with water at numerous sites around the Army base during frequent training sessions.
The PFAS concentrations in five of the base’s 28 drinking water wells were high enough to be taken offline as plans were developed for filtration systems. And the Army’s PFAS concerns prompted Lakewood district water officials to begin their own testing, which started in 2016.
These tests have confirmed PFAS in eight of Lakewood’s 33 wells exceeding the state action levels. Concentrations generally have increased over time as PFAS migrates from aquifers beneath the military base to the district’s wellfields, according to analysis by flow consultants hired by Lakewood.
In November 2021, one well — already shut down due to PFAS contamination — tested at 110 parts per trillion. The concentration exceeded the Defense Department’s threshold of 70 parts per trillion for providing financial assistance to public water systems or other well owners who have suffered PFAS contamination that likely spread from military installations.
But Army officials have so far refused to acknowledge the base’s pollution caused the contamination to escalate to that level, and have declined to provide funding to cover the costs of Lakewood’s PFAS contamination.
The Army’s position has bitterly disappointed Lakewood water officials who have taken four wells offline and, through state grants and rate increases, have spent nearly $9 million to build two treatment systems for four other wells.
“This is all coming from JBLM. I’m hoping that we start to see a little more cooperation in what we have to deal with,” said Randy Black, general manager of the Lakewood Water District.
The Army in a written statement said an investigation is underway “to determine if contamination is migrating to off-base locations,” and declined to comment on the validity of Lakewood tests.
Citing the pending litigation, the Army also did not comment on why no financial assistance has been offered Lakewood.
On Whidbey Island, the Navy has taken a different approach to off-base PFAS contamination and has so far avoided any lawsuits from public water systems.
Navy-financed testing detected PFAS in an aquifer under the town of Coupeville, in a well near an airfield where the chemicals also were detected in groundwater. Test results showed the town well approaching, then exceeding, 70 parts per trillion, the Defense Department’s threshold for providing assistance. The Navy funded a water treatment system that began operating in 2019.
On Whidbey, there still is plenty of concern about the scope of PFAS pollution, and anger at the Navy for its role in the contamination.
But the Navy’s efforts to aid Coupeville have drawn praise from Joe Grogan, the town’s director of public works.
“They have really put some resources into this. I am very impressed with the way the Navy has responded,” Grogan said.
No smoking gun
Vancouver, in Southwest Washington, faces one of the state’s most expensive efforts to clean up PFAS across a broad expanse of aquifers.
City water officials thought layers of soil and gravel in the aquifers have filtered almost all potential contaminants. An initial test for PFAS in 2013 appeared to indicate PFAS was not a problem.
But in 2020, as the state Board of Health began work on developing the state action levels, city water officials opted to undertake a new round of testing. This time, the water samples would undergo a more highly refined laboratory analysis able to detect these chemicals at much lower levels.
“We came back with hits of PFAS all over the place,” said Tyler Clary, manager for the city’s water system.
Consultants hired by Vancouver have tried to find the source of the PFAS contamination, found in wells as far as 10 miles from one another. They have built complex groundwater models, and taken numerous samples, which indicate PFAS levels have generally been climbing during three rounds of testing from September 2020 to July 2021.
Across the country, industrial sites, landfills and wastewater treatment plants, along with firefighting training areas, frequently have been sources of PFAS contamination. But so far, Vancouver’s investigation has not located any major hot spot. Clary is unsure if they will be pinpointed. Instead, he thinks that there are a multitude of small sources that find their way to stormwater runoff that then percolates into the aquifer.
A Portland-based engineering firm, Brown and Caldwell, in May submitted a plan to build PFAS treatment systems at the six pump stations where water has tested at or above state action levels. Their report warned of “drastic increases” in costs in recent years due to supply chain issues. The report estimated $171.8 million would be needed to build the filtration systems over six years with construction beginning in 2025. Once built, Vancouver would need to budget about $1.24 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.
Vancouver water officials say no final decision has been made to greenlight this work. That depends on how state and federal regulations evolve, and direction from the City Council. Already a $100 million placeholder has been put in the budgets for 2025 through 2030 that Clary hopes would be raised through grants or loans.
Next year, as another round of testing gets underway, city officials are planning a broader outreach. “We will be having a full communication plan with our residents about what we’re doing, and what they can expect and what this means,” said Laura Shepard, a city spokesperson.
In Washington and other states, PFAS continues to leach through sediments and rock into groundwater.
At Lakewood, even when filtration systems are up and running, district officials have to remain vigilant, frequently testing to ensure water quality is maintained.
Over time, the coal inside the tanks becomes more saturated with PFAS and less effective as a filter. Meyer, the district engineer, estimates that every five years it will be removed.
Then, the district will need to figure out what to do with the PFAS-contaminated coal. One option is to send it to a hazardous waste disposal site equipped with liners that prevent the PFAS from returning to the groundwater. The district plans another approach that sends the coal through a purging process in a furnace that can reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We are at the beginning of this journey. I am sure there are going to be many lessons learned along the way,” Meyer said.