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News / Northwest

No more delays to PFAS cleanup, state Department of Ecology tells Spokane International Airport

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 14, 2024, 7:41am

SPOKANE — After several extensions and five months of negotiations, the Washington State Department of Ecology is telling the Spokane International Airport it will not accept any more delays for the initial stages of PFAS contamination cleanup.

Alerted to the airport’s PFAS exposure in 2023, Ecology began negotiations with the airport in October. Initially supposed to take place over 60 days, Ecology extended this process three times over five months at the airport’s request.

The hazardous chemical’s presence in West Plains residential water after years of runoff from firefighting foam at the airport and nearby Fairchild Air Force Base has been the target of an ongoing cleanup effort.

In a Monday letter to the airport, Ecology said further delays and negotiation are “not in the public’s interest,” and denied a request for another 60-day extension.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the airport did not immediately respond to The Spokesman-Review.

According to the airport’s latest request for an extension, at issue in the dispute are Federal Aviation Administration regulations the airport believes may prevent them from using their funds for Ecology’s overhead costs or to clean chemical contamination not on airport property. A March 7 letter to Ecology requests the order be delayed until the airport receives guidance from the FAA.

“The Airport respectfully renews its request that Ecology await the FAA’s review of the conflicts between federal law and the proposed agreed order. As we clearly explained, this proposed approach by Ecology puts the Airport in an untenable position,” wrote Airport Board legal council Brian Werst.

“Ecology continues to urge the Airport to sign the Agreed Order knowing full well that a federal agency is in the process of reviewing whether that order violates federal law. Ecology is asking the Airport to sign an order that may well put it in legal jeopardy with the federal government. We believe this approach by Ecology is arbitrary, capricious and unlawful,” he wrote.

Ecology site manager Jeremy Schmidt said that the agency was “not satisfied” these concerns were worth “delaying the cleanup any further.” He also noted that after the airport raised these concerns, Ecology revised the proposed order to address any possible conflicts with federal law.

“If the airport were to find that federal law did preempt state law here, we have made modifications to the agreed order that will allow the cleanup work to proceed while the airport fully determines what regulations they need to comply with,” he said.

Monday’s letter also notes the airport did not apply for a State of Washington, Department of Ecology Oversight Remedial Action Grant this year, which would “contribute a minimum 50% cost share for all remedial action costs” associated with the initial stages of the cleanup

In a Feb. 26 letter to Ecology, Werst suggested the airport could begin its own cleanup process before agreeing to a formal order with the agency.

“The Airport is moving forward with its highly experienced and qualified environmental consulting team to investigate the groundwater and soil conditions on Airport property …” the letter reads. “The scope and breadth of our team’s PFAS experience will bring expertise to the project that, we believe, is beyond the expertise of Ecology.”

By “proceeding with a prompt investigation now” before an order is put in place, the airport would be working in “the best interests of the public.”

“We cannot understand why Ecology is now asking to delay the investigation,” Werst wrote in the February letter.

According to Schmidt, Ecology cannot allow the airport to begin its investigation without an order in place because doing so would give the state agency “no ability to ensure that the airport conducts the work in accordance with the state practice for environmental investigations.”

“We don’t believe it is in anyone’s best interest for the airport to conduct work without Ecology’s oversight,” he said.

In his Monday letter, Schmidt called the claim Ecology was delaying the cleanup a “gross mischaracterization.” Instead, he said, the delay stemmed from the airport not agreeing to an order after five months of negotiation, and that the airport did not notify Ecology of its PFAS exposure until last year.

“Spokane International Airport did not notify Ecology of its 2017 and 2019 PFAS sampling results where a 2019 result indicated on property PFAS contamination in groundwater more than 500 times applicable standards. This lack of required notification to Ecology has delayed Site cleanup work by more than two years,” the letter reads.

What happens if there is not an agreement?

If the airport does not enter into the order that has been negotiated to this point, Ecology will unilaterally enter them into an “Enforcement Order” on March 29. This enforcement is largely the same as the order that has been negotiated, but contains “more restrictive language,” according to Schmidt.

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Should the airport not comply with the enforcement order, Ecology can take the airport to court.

“If we have to do that, it’s my understanding that if the court were to side in Ecology’s favor, there are substantial monetary damages for which the court would impose on the airport,” he said.

Once an order is in place, the airport will conduct a remedial investigation that identifies the magnitude and extent of contamination at the site.

That is followed by a feasibility study that compares methods to clean up the contamination.

This planning process will take approximately two years, according to Schmidt. While formal cleanup will not begin until these two steps are completed, the airport would be required to clean up an exposure that cannot wait.

The cleanup process could be completed in as soon as three years, but it could take much longer — in part because of public comment and review at each stage of the process.

According to Schmidt, it takes on average 12 years until all exposures are remedied at a site such as the airport.