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News / Northwest

Not ‘reasonable’: Spokane International Airport hits back against state PFAS cleanup order

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 3, 2024, 7:29am

SPOKANE — Spokane International Airport is pushing back against a “disappointing” state Department of Ecology order to begin PFAS cleanup planning — stating the airport will move forward with its own investigation into the presence of the toxic chemicals.

“The Spokane International Airport cares about the safety of our passengers, staff and communities we serve, which is why we diligently assess as many considerations as possible in our work,” reads a statement from Spokane International Airport spokesperson Todd Woodard.

The Washington Department of Ecology has ordered Spokane International Airport to begin making cleanup plans for PFAS, dangerous chemicals to which people on the West Plains have been exposed for decades, after the two sides negotiated unsuccessfully for six months.

The presence of the hazardous chemicals in West Plains residential water after years of runoff from firefighting foam at the airport and nearby Fairchild Air Force Base has been the subject of an ongoing cleanup effort. Ecology was alerted to PFAS contamination at the airport last year. The effort to build a cleanup plan was initially expected to take place over 60 days, but Ecology extended the process three times over five months at the airport’s request.

The state agency placed an “enforcement order” last week after negotiations between the sides faltered. The order requires Spokane International Airport to conduct a remedial investigation identifying the magnitude and extent of contamination at the site. That would be followed by a feasibility study comparing methods to clean up the contamination.

According to Woodard, the airport met with Ecology “in good faith,” and the order placed upon them “does not represent the type of reasonable, balanced approach that is necessary.”

At issue in the case is “significant conflicts between Ecology’s proposals and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations,” according to Woodard. Because of these perceived conflicts, the airport requested extensions from Ecology until the FAA gave it guidance.

According to Woodard, the airport received that federal guidance late in the day Friday — the same day Ecology issued its enforcement order. Woodard declined to share the FAA guidance or explain how the guidance may impact the enforcement order.

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“Because commercial service airports have been federally mandated users of (firefighting foam), it is paramount for the FAA to provide guidance on next steps prior to executing an Administrative Order with Ecology. The FAA provided its guidance late in the day on March 29 after we received the Enforcement Order from Ecology. We are currently reviewing both documents,” Woodard wrote.

He went on to say the airport was “disappointed” the Ecology Department would issue such an order without clarification from the federal government.

“Despite the challenges and inconsistencies, we are proceeding with reasonable actions to investigate the extent of any PFAS on our property to assess whether there are pathways that result in human exposure and to develop plans to mitigate exposure exceeding appropriate standards,” he wrote.

According to an Ecology spokesperson, the state agency has not received guidance from the FAA — either through the federal agency itself or from Spokane International Airport. Based on its understanding, the outstanding issue was whether airport revenue can be used for cleanup.

“Ecology is not requiring the cleanup work to be funded by airport revenue,” the statement reads. Regardless of the FAA guidance, Ecology expects the airport to “conduct the work, which includes a remedial investigation and feasibility study, and meet deadlines outlined in the Enforcement Order.”

Last year, the airport hired a team of “nationally recognized consultants with expertise in PFAS investigations to advise the Airport’s site-specific investigatory strategy,” according to Woodard. These efforts will “continue despite the Enforcement Order,” the spokesperson said.

Asked for clarification, Woodard declined to say whether the cleanup will follow the process outlined in the Enforcement Order.

“We look forward to resolving the outstanding issues that we have raised with Ecology while continuing to move forward with this important work,” he said in the original statement.