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News / Northwest

Residents with contaminated water near Yakima Training Center still waiting for solutions

By Santiago Ochoa, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: May 22, 2023, 7:38am

YAKIMA — More than a year after finding out her home’s well had high levels of toxic chemicals, Brandi Hyatt and her family in East Selah have adapted to using bottled water for everything from brushing their teeth to filling their dog’s water bowl.

“As far as daily life goes, everything is worked around the bottled water,” said Hyatt while sitting at her dining table. “It’s part of everything we do. We use it to drink, to cook, to brush our teeth. Anything that comes out of a tap is fully contaminated. We don’t even shower here.”

The Hyatts are not alone. Their home was one of 12 on their cul-de-sac that tested high for the toxic chemicals. In total, more than 80 households in East Selah were informed by the U.S. Army over the last two years that their private water wells were contaminated with dangerous levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Commonly referred to as forever chemicals because of their ability to remain in human bodies for decades, PFAS were one of the main components in a firefighting foam used in the nearby Yakima Training Center for decades during firefighting exercises. Over the years, the chemicals in the foam seeped into the ground and eventually spread down and out into the wells of homes nearby.

After finding high levels of PFAS in groundwater inside the training center, the Army started testing homes nearby in October 2021. By the next summer, the Army had found 62 wells providing water to 87 households testing above the recommended federal levels for PFAS in drinking water.

The Army presented the latest findings to the public in September and began outlining solutions such as providing whole-house filters.

Eight months later, the Army has yet to deliver on many of its proposed solutions to East Selah residents, some of whom have been living off bottled water for a year and a half.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new federal limit for PFAS chemicals, and the state Department of Ecology has issued an enforcement order against the Army asking for oversight of the cleanup efforts near the training center.

A new way of living

Hyatt has been living at her East Selah home with her husband and children for eight years. She home-schools her two kids and runs a hair salon out of her basement.

Nowadays, whatever time she has left after school and work is spent reaching out to agencies like the Army, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Yakima Health District seeking answers and greater transparency for her and her neighbors.

After learning about the PFAS in their water, Hyatt and her kids started going for weekly swims at the YMCA Aquatic Center in Yakima.

“We like to use the pool and swim, so it feels like we went there to do something else. But we’re really there for the showers,” she said. “We have been told PFAS doesn’t enter the body through the skin, but if you already have it in your system, I feel like you should avoid putting any more of it in.”

The Hyatts still shower at home on the days they don’t visit the YMCA. While they’ve set up their lives at home to avoid using water as much as possible, the family still turns to it for washing dishes, doing laundry and hand washing.

“You don’t realize, until you have to avoid it, that water is involved in almost everything we do,” Hyatt said.

In early 2023 after months of waiting to hear back from the Army about the whole-house filters they’d been promised, the Hyatts decided to get a quote of their own. The estimate came out to $27,000, something they could not afford.

A spokesperson said there is no policy to allow the Army to reimburse residents who install their own filtration systems.

“We were given different options,” Hyatt said, referring to the solutions offered by the Army. “They said, ‘We might bring in whole-home filtration systems or we might dig a deeper well. We might tap you into a different water source.’ We were supposed to hear from someone within 60 days of that meeting in September and we didn’t hear anything until this year.”

In February, an Army contractor came to do a site inspection on her home and the other homes testing above 70 parts per trillion. Hyatt said she has not heard from the Army since.

“We don’t know who is finally going to come and do more,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”

Hyatt said she’s been told by different agencies that the contamination happened in a jurisdictional gray area.

Dominique Joseph, an EPA spokesperson, said the issue is being addressed by the Department of Ecology. The homes are on private wells and not public water systems, and private wells fall outside the scope of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. If it involved a public water system, the state Department of Health would be the lead regulatory agency and EPA would have an oversight role.

Hyatt said it feels like the government agencies are all waiting for someone else to take the lead.

“It’s like we’re all living in these houses that are on fire and they’re like, ‘Let’s investigate this fire and see how what we can learn from it, but we won’t put it out because we aren’t responsible for it,’” Hyatt said.

Recent action

In February, the state Department of Ecology issued an enforcement order against the Army, seeking oversight of cleanup efforts near the training center, greater transparency, and for decontamination efforts to meet the state’s regulatory standards.

“The Army has taken some initial steps to test wells and provide drinking water to residents, but we need their help to fully understand the scope of the problem and ensure the right actions are taken to fix it,” Ecology Director Laura Watson said in a news release at the time. “The Army has an obligation to clean up PFAS and other types of toxic contamination on the training site to levels that meet state standards and protect the public.”

In late March, a small victory for East Selah residents came when the Yakima Health District in partnership with the DOH began distributing water pitcher filters and point-of-use filters that attach to water sources inside the home such as sinks or showers, something Hyatt had been urging the health district to do.

The filters were distributed to the 39 homes tested by the Army that had shown PFAS levels below the Army’s criteria for assistance but above the state’s drinking water regulation.,

As of May 2023, those 39 homes were the only ones to receive any sort of filtration system from any government agency.

Hyatt said she’s glad at least some of her neighbors have gotten some help.

“We have to keep talking about it, we have to keep making noise, that’s the only way anyone is going to listen to us,” Hyatt said.

Shifting regulations

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency set health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion for two of the most harmful forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. The advisories are voluntary, non-enforceable health thresholds for safe drinking water.

When the Army began testing homes near the training center and determining how to distribute assistance, officials used the EPA’s 2016 health advisories and the 70 ppt cutoff.

A month after the first round of test results in East Selah found eight contaminated wells, the state Department of Health set its drinking water regulatory standards for PFOA and PFAS of 10 and 15 ppt respectively.

State agencies like the DOH and the Department of Ecology previously have said the Army should provide assistance to all homes testing above the state’s measurement of 10 ppt. Based on test results made public by the Army of the 300 homes tested in East Selah, more than 30 additional households would qualify for help if the Army observed Washington’s drinking water standards.

In 2022 the EPA released a new set of health advisory levels for PFAS at near 0 ppt. At an informational meeting in September 2022, Lt. Col. Tim Horn, commander of the training center, said the Army would continue observing the EPA’s 2016 advisories because the levels were being updated and current testing methods for PFAS cannot detect the chemical below a level of 4 ppt.

“The DoD (Department of Defense) is waiting for the EPA to release a regulatory drinking water standard,” Horn said in the September meeting. “They’re still analyzing those numbers. The EPA’s advisory board is looking at those numbers so the DoD is just waiting for that standard.”

In March, the EPA proposed a new federal limit of 4 ppt for PFAS chemicals, the lowest level that tests can detect. The new regulation would be a mandatory limit on water providers, different from the earlier advisories.

The EPA expects the regulation to be implemented by the end of this year. If it passes, thousands of public water systems would be required to start testing and treating their water for PFAS. The agency is taking public comment on the proposed regulations until May 30.

An Army spokesperson said the Department of Defense, which oversees Army operations, is prepared to revisit its existing data and conduct additional testing in the area once the EPA’s regulations are in place. The Army will also abide by PFAS cleanup guidance that will be enforced along with the new drinking water regulations.

“The Department is assessing what actions DoD can take to be prepared to incorporate EPA’s final regulatory standard into our current cleanup process, such as reviewing our existing data and conducting additional sampling where necessary,” the spokesperson said in an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic. “In addition, DoD will incorporate nationwide PFAS cleanup guidance, issued by EPA and applicable to all owners and operators under the federal cleanup law, as to when to provide alternate water when PFAS are present.”

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Filled with uncertainty

Kim Brewer and Rick Main live just down the road from the Hyatts. They’ve been in their East Selah home for 15 years. After their water tested at over 800 ppt for PFAS, the highest of any household based on the test results from the Army, they decided to get their blood tested too.

According to a 2022 report published by the National Academies Press, which publishes reports from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the majority of the U.S. population has a PFAS blood content of about 2 nanograms per milliliter. At that level and below, most people will experience no adverse health effects.

Between 2 and 20, the report recommended patients be screened for cholesterol, breast cancer and hypertension.

Above 20 nanograms per milliliter, the report said patients are at the greatest risk for adverse health effects including testicular cancer and ulcerative colitis, and also at risk for thyroid and kidney malfunctions among others.

Main’s results revealed PFAS levels in his blood of 89 nanograms per milliliter. Brewer was told if he decided to get tested, his results would most likely be the same.

That same blood test showed Main was entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The news left the couple devastated.

“It’s like you’re sitting there and you’re thinking there is nothing I can do,” Main said. “When things come up in life, you find ways to solve things, but with this the situation basically was there is nothing I can do. You just have to shift your thinking.”

The effects of PFAS on humans are not completely understood. No current studies definitively link high PFAS blood levels to neurocognitive disorders.

A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine identified a possible association between testicular cancer and PFAS exposure, but concluded that “the evidence for an association between cancer and PFAS remains sparse.”

This uncertainty has left residents in East Selah questioning the state of their health.

Hyatt struggles with a chronic illness. While it could be unrelated to the contaminated water she drank for years, in her mind she can’t discount it.

The previous owner of her home, Hyatt said, struggled with kidney issues and breast cancer. The two stayed in touch, and Hyatt said that after a few years the homeowner recovered from both diseases. She said in the eight years her family has lived at their home, five residents in the area have died from cancer.

“You know, you don’t think if that could be linked to the water or not. We just didn’t know.”

For Main, the news about his condition and the lack of resources to treat it, fix it or even understand how it happened forced him to change his perspective on life.

“You have to shift your reality,” Main said. “My family, most of my grandparents, my mom and everybody, they all lived to 90. I know I won’t be doing that.”

Brewer said as PFAS becomes better understood, he hopes health care providers in the area stay informed on the matter. When Main and Brewer first decided to get their blood tested, they started by reaching out to health care providers in the area.

They said no one they spoke to was familiar with PFAS or its effects on humans. The couple eventually reached out to the University of Washington, where they found a provider and a lab that could test their blood.

Environmental concerns

Aside from their health concerns, many residents in East Selah have expressed concern about the contamination spreading to other areas.

Eleven houses near the cul-de-sac, sitting less than a half-mile from the Yakima River, tested above 70 ppt, according to data from the Army and the Department of Ecology.

Greg Caron, a hydrogeologist with Ecology, said the agency is working to track the spread of PFAS coming from the training center to understand how and where it could move in the future. He says without the Army’s help, the process of studying the contamination has been slow.

“Ecology has repeatedly asked the Army to test surface waters, things like the Yakima River, canals, and fishing ponds in the area,” Caron said. “The Army has informed us that they do not intend to do that at this time.”

Caron said Ecology reached out to the EPA, which recently started evaluating the Department of Defense’s response to similar contamination around military bases across the country. As part of these efforts, the EPA has begun working with Ecology to retest wells in the area.

“The EPA wanted to know should they (the Army) be doing more,” Caron said. “Ecology’s answer was emphatically yes. We would like more assistance in the Selah area. To that end, Ecology and the EPA are coordinating additional sampling at the end of May.”

The EPA and Ecology began testing in the third week of May.

In the meantime, Caron said Ecology has urged the Army to retest all of the households in the area to check for movement of PFAS through the ground.

“It’s been getting close to two years since we’ve had any updated sampling and groundwater moves. It needs to be sampled periodically and the Army has informed us that they do not intend to retest all those private wells,” Caron said. “Conceptually we understand the PFAS in the groundwater originated at the training center and it’s moving in a westerly and southwesterly direction toward the Yakima River, which is why we so desperately in the community want to get those surface water bodies tested.”

A spokesperson for the Army said there are no plans to retest all homes that were already sampled, “though the Army will evaluate the need and frequency of additional testing as part of the ongoing remedial investigation.” The Army is part of the May testing effort with the EPA and Ecology.

“The Army will determine need and frequency of additional sampling both on the Yakima Training Center installation and in the community outside its gates as part of the ongoing remedial investigation,” it said in a statement.

The Army doesn’t plan to test surface water outside the training center, it said in response to questions submitted by the Herald-Republic.

Demanding a seat at the table

At its core, Hyatt said her biggest complaint with the situation has been the lack of transparency from the Army and other government entities that have stepped in to monitor the contamination.

“I don’t blame the guys at the base who sprayed the foam, especially since they didn’t know what it was,” Hyatt said. “I don’t think there is a conspiracy here. I think it’s just how these organizations operate and I think we as the people affected need more access to be involved.”

In April 2022, the Army announced the establishment of a Restoration Advisory Board for residents interested in voicing their concerns and being involved in the solution-finding process. The board has not been formed.

During a listening session Hyatt helped organize in February, East Selah residents got the chance to speak with representatives from the DOH, Ecology and the Yakima Health District.

More than 100 residents attended the meeting. Many complained about the lack of communication between the government agencies and the community. Multiple residents said they’d been ignoring calls from out-of-state numbers for weeks only to find it was the Army calling.

“I would like the military to quit saying they’re being transparent. They’re not,” Brewer said. “What happened to the Restoration Community Board? Nothing’s happened. I would like them to step up and bring us some water we can feel safe to drink ourselves and for people who come to visit like our kids and grandkids.”

Between the time her well was tested and the time she received her results, Hyatt had a few months where she thought her home’s water was not contaminated. She spoke with neighbors who had received their results and had found high levels of contamination.

When she finally got her results, she realized with a substance as pervasive as PFAS, no one can know for sure if they’ve been affected unless they’ve tested for it.

“When I speak with people, they always say, ‘I’m so sorry that’s happening to you,” Hyatt said. “Well, I was that girl for a while when it was happening above me. Then I found out it was happening to me. So it’s like, ‘Do you know that you’re not drinking PFAS? Has your city tested for PFAS?’”