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News / Northwest

Family with contaminated water near training center left with growing pile of PFAS-filled filters

By Santiago Ochoa, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: June 4, 2023, 6:00am

YAKIMA — Jenna Vogel and her husband moved to East Selah in fall 2021. Days after settling in, the Yakima Training Center shared a news release informing residents that a dozen homes in the area had concentrations of forever chemicals in their water that exceeded federal drinking water standards. Their house was among those affected.

At first, the Vogels tried contacting their home’s previous owner to see if anything could be done. They had no luck.

“We moved here in October 2021,” Vogel said while standing in her dining room. “Literally the week after we closed, it was on the front page of the paper. So we called the previous owner first and said, ‘Hey did you know about this, can we pursue something there?’ and he didn’t. We didn’t get anywhere with that. We were stuck basically.”

For decades, the Army used a firefighting foam which contained high levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at the training center. Some PFAS chemicals are extremely persistent and toxic. They are able to stay inside human bodies for years, causing health issues even in microscopic quantities.

Over the years, the PFAS in the firefighting foam used in the YTC seeped into the ground and fanned out toward East Selah. After finding the first signs of contaminated homes outside the training center, the Army began distributing bottled water to affected homes.

Residents in East Selah are waiting for the Army to address many of their concerns stemming from the groundwater contamination caused by forever chemicals. The Vogels, who have installed their own filtration system, said the safe disposal of filters used to remove PFAS from drinking water is at the top of their list.

Taking matters into their own hands

For the Vogel family, switching to bottled water was not enough. Their 4-year-old son, Jonah, is autistic and is fed through a gastronomy tube. He’s had multiple procedures done and is more susceptible to illness than other children. The Vogels could not risk Jonah coming into contact with water contaminated by harmful chemicals. The Vogels decided to bathe Jonah at his grandparents’ house in nearby Selah while guidance came in from the Army about whether exposure to PFAS through showering was an issue.

For most PFAS, showering and bathing in water containing the contaminants should not significantly increase exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Still, the Vogels didn’t want to take any risks.

“That kind of stuff is just wild,” Vogel said. “Our entire life has been Jonah and his appointments and worrying about all the medical stuff. He’s had like 10 different procedures. Then we come here and we have to deal with this. I just can’t.”

After coming to terms with the fact they wouldn’t be able to move out of the house and seeing no long-term solutions coming from the Army any time soon, the Vogels decided to install a whole-house water filtration system on their own.

In the basement of her home, through a narrow door that leads into an unfinished room, a network of filters suspended in the air by PVC and copper pipes running through them remove PFAS from the home’s water.

In total, the Vogels paid over $7,000 for the filtration system and susbsequent water tests to make sure the filters are working. Since knowledge of how PFAS filtering works is still new and water usage fluctuates from home to home, the Vogels also had to test water leaving their filtration system to gauge how long the filters worked.

Every two months, the Vogels spend upwards of $150 to replace their filters.

“We get new filters for Jonah’s safety every two months. It may be a little overboard, we might be able to do three, but with Jonah, we can’t risk any more,” Vogel said.

In an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic, an Army spokesperson said there is no policy in place that would allow the Army to reimburse residents like the Vogels who installed their own filtration systems.

“I’m not asking for millions of dollars, I just want my money back,” Vogel said. “I mean, that’s half of our savings that we’ve put into fixing this problem. I understand their intention was not to cause any harm but OK, we know what happened, now it’s their responsibility to fix it and make it right.”

Safe disposal

After the first two months of living with their new filtration system, the Vogels encountered another issue: How to safely get rid of the spent filters.

Aware of the pervasive nature of PFAS, Vogel did not want to just throw the filters in with the rest of the home’s garbage at the risk of spreading the contamination to another area.

She first reached out to the county-operated Terrace Heights Landfill but found no solutions there.

The Yakima County hazardous waste webpage defines hazardous waste as anything labeled caution, corrosive and toxic among other terms. Accepted materials include antifreeze, fluorescent light bulbs and pesticide.

Neither the county’s definition of hazardous nor its accepted materials apply to byproducts of the PFAS contamination in East Selah or PFAS itself.

For months, the Vogels kept their growing collection of PFAS-filled filters in their garage. Recently, out of an abundance of caution, Jonah’s grandparents offered to store the filters in the hopes of keeping their grandson away from them.

“We’ve pretty much just been stockpiling over there,” Vogel said. “We have like four or five filters there right now.”

Vogel reached out to the Army next. She was told to take them to the landfill.

No clear solution

An Army spokesperson said the Army tentatively plans to start installing the whole-house water filters they promised to residents last September in fall 2023. They said filters used in these systems would be replaced and disposed of by the Army in accordance with federal guidelines.

Residents who opted to install their own filtration systems, whether whole-home, point-of-use or pitcher filters, would be responsible for disposal.

The Army pointed both Vogel and the Yakima Herald-Republic a document from the Environmental Protection Agency. The 23-page document from 2009 is a reference guide that provides information on exclusions to hazardous waste regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The document does not specifically mention PFAS.

In 2020 the EPA released interim guidance on destroying and disposing of certain PFAS and PFAS-containing materials.

While the interim guidelines lay out the different methods and risks involved with the disposal of PFAS, it focuses mainly on the disposal of consumer goods treated with PFAS and landfill leachate containing PFAS. It does not specify how to dispose of consumer-grade filters.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology said Yakima County’s solid waste program can take used filters through its moderate-risk waste program.

Ecology published its own PFAS action plan in 2021. The book-length plan focuses mostly on PFAS waste produced by industry and ways to reduce the PFAS content in consumer goods.

With new federal drinking water regulations expected to be put in place by the EPA within the next year, more robust guidance and regulations on PFAS waste could be coming. That will be important because water filters could be used for years by East Selah residents and residents of other contaminated communities across the state.

For now, the Vogels’ stockpile of used filters will continue to grow in their parents’ garage.

“We’re going through this issue and it feels like they (Army) don’t care,” Vogel said. “They don’t have any kind of sense of urgency. Where is their sense of ‘we need to fix this, we need to make this right for our community?’” she asked.

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