PFAS, Forever Chemicals, and Our Water

Spokane County Commissioner Al French and the public good

There is trouble brewing on Spokane’s West Plains, and the most powerful, embedded, and connected politician in Spokane County, County Commissioner Al French, along with the Spokane International Airport’s CEO, Larry Krauter, really want the trouble just to go away. The excellent article by long-time investigative reporter Tim Connor reveals how Commissioner French quietly stifled efforts to have the county assist in gathering data on the possible contamination of the West Plains well water. It is one thing for a powerful elected official to personally question if a contamination threat to the health and well-being of some of his constituents is overblown, but it is quite another to unilaterally use one’s political power to block acceptance of a $450,000 grant to do the testing necessary to quantify the problem. Apparently, Mr. French is convinced his understanding of the risks of chemical contamination of the West Plains is superior to that of the scientific community. (Note the parallels to fervent Republican denials of the mechanism and importance of global heating.) 

The Background

If you’ve been around as long as I have you’ll remember the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Those words frequently uttered on radio and TV were part of an ad campaign of the DuPont Corporation from 1935 to 1982. At the time new chemicals with trade names like Teflon and Freon were marvels of modern science. Barely a passing thought was spent on their possible effects on human health and the environment. 

If it were not for observant, questioning lay people, physicians, epidemiologists, environmental scientists, and plaintiffs’ attorneys, the long term effects of these chemicals would still be unknown—and, since ignorance is bliss, the corporations that manufacture and market these chemical products to the public would be blithely delivering profits at the public’s expense. The combination of internal corporate evaluations and passive surveillance by government agencies like the EPA are inadequate to the task of deciding what is safe and what is not.

“Forever Chemicals” = all of the “PFAS(s)”

The naming of organic chemicals is mind-numbing, which is why the name “forever chemicals” was first applied to “PFAS” chemicals in an op ed in the Washington Post in 2018 (that is an excellent explanatory article that is worth reading if you’re not blocked by a paywall.) PFAS stands for “Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances”, a class which includes what are now more than ten thousand chemicals that go by a number of abbreviations you might see in print, like PFOS and PFOA (two of the PFAS chemicals that are major constituents of firefighting foams that have been used both at Fairchild and Spokane International). They are all dubbed “forever chemicals” because, once synthesized, they resist breakdown in nature (and in our bodies) for millennia on account of the tremendous stability of carbon-fluorine chemical bonds. 

PFAS did not exist in nature before they were first chemically synthesized in the 1930s. As a class of chemicals PFAS possess properties that made them extremely useful in applications like non-stick cook pans (Teflon), fire-fighting foams (like those used in quantity for decades at Fairchild—and—it turns out—Spokane International Airport), waterproof clothing, and stain-resistant fabrics. PFAS have been produced and used in quantity from the 1940s and 1950s onward. There are now thousands of members of the PFAS family of chemicals. Now, if one checks, after eighty years of industrial production and use, PFAS can be found at some concentration nearly everywhere on the globe—and in nearly every living being.

Although DuPont was aware as early as the 1970s that its workers exposed to PFAS had elevated serum blood levels of PFAS chemicals, PFAS were thought to be inert. Consequently, elevated serum levels were deemed by DuPont to be of little concern. It took cows dying miserably, a distressed West Virginia cattle farmer, and an extremely diligent and dedicated plaintiff’s attorney, Rob Bilott, to finally get DuPont’s attention—and to launch a class-action-funded scientific investigation that finally laid out the health risks of PFAS in the early 2000s. If you have the time, the NYTimes Feature article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” is a lengthy, but absolutely fascinating story. (The story focuses on PFOS contamination, one specific PFAS forever chemical that is among the West Plains well-contaminants.)

West Plains Water

Over a couple of decades we’ve all read articles on the possible dangers of “forever chemicals” building up in the environment—with consequences like endocrine dysfunction and increased frequency of certain cancers, pregnancy complications, sterility, and birth defects. Such concerns might have seemed far away, the stuff of national reporting with little or nothing in the way local relevance. Then in 2017 there appeared a number of local articles about “PFAS” and “PFOS” chemicals from firefighting foams used for decades at Fairchild Air Force Base that were found in high concentrations as contaminants to the municipal well water of the City of Airway Heights. 

There were immediate local consequences. The detection of municipal well contamination with PFAS led Airway Heights to seek water for its citizens from the City of Spokane. The City of Spokane taps into well water drawnfrom a different resource, the Spokane Valley–Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer(SVRP Aquifer). Here’s a map of that large and important aquifer:

The water in the SVRP Aquifer generally (and slowly) flows westward underground along with the Spokane River. Notice that the X in the southwest corner of the map, the spot marking Spokane International Airport on the West Plains, does not lie over, nor is its source of water drawn from, the porous, sand and gravel-filled Spokane Valley—Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. When the wells supplying Airway Heights turned up with PFAS contamination the City of Airway Heights was able to draw its water from this larger, uncontaminated SVRP Aquifer via pipes connected to the seven municipal wells of the City of Spokane. (Note, as an aside, that if you live on Spokane’s South Hill or Five Mile Prairie you are also dependent on pipes that draw water from these municipal wells drilled into the SVRP Aquifer.) 

Think of the SVRP Aquifer as a large, irregular bathtub filled with a thick layer of porous sand and gravel. That material was deposited by glaciers that finally melted back northward around ten thousand years ago. In contrast, the porous, water-permeable “paleochannels” that exist on the West Plains are lined with the impermeable black rocks (basalt) of the same type as you see in a number of places sticking up along I-90. These paleochannels run generally downhill on the West Plains in a northeasterly direction toward Deep Creek and the Spokane River. The black rock you see is basalt that solidified from several lava flows that rolled in from somewhere in eastern Oregon roughly twenty millions of years ago (the early Miocene Epoch). In the periods between these lava flows erosion carved other earlier paleochannels out of earlier layers of basalt. In some cases these earlier channels were partly filled in with porous sediment before another flow covered the landscape. (This is the same sort of geology that also underlies Spokane’s South Hill.) Imagine the result of this process: pockets of porous materials that can hold water (basically the definition of an aquifer) separated by layers of relatively impermeable (but often cracked and fissured) basalt. 

Now imagine seeing all that in cross-section with thousands of well-holes drilled into it to various depths and you have some idea of the complexity of West Plains water supplies by comparison the large and relatively uniform Spokane Valley—Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. The take away from all this, going back to the original story, is that underground water on the West Plains exists in a complex system that flows slowly northeastward in several of paleochannels that were long ago carved in the basalt.

Below is a map of the West Plains roughly showing the paleochannels and the locations of Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International Airport. Take note of the light green area signifying the “Fairchild Test Zone” (west of Hayford Rd) and of the location of Spokane International Airport and its upstream (or “up-channel”) relationship to the “Airport Paleochannel.” Finally, note the dark green “Pritchard Ecology Study Area,” the proposed well water data gathering area that would have been studied under the $450,000 grant. That is the grant that Commissioner French and CEO Krauter quietly blocked in 2020.

It’s a little hard to see, but there are three areas on this map that are served by municipal water: Medical Lake (with its own wells and water system), Airway Heights (now connected to the City of Spokane municipal water system as a result of PFAS contamination from Fairchild firefighting foams) and the area surrounding Spokane International Airport (which, being technically a part of the City of Spokane, also on gets its water from the Spokane municipal system). Importantly, all those little red dots you see on the map are private wells still individually drawing water from the complex of aquifers on the West Plains. The private wells within the light green “Fairchild Test Zone” fall under the water testing regimen supported by the federal government through Fairchild Air Force Base. All those red dots in the dark green area are wells that either haven’t been tested for PFAS or were tested at private expense. A large number of those wells are at risk of PFAS contamination not so much from Fairchild but rather from PFAS use at Spokane International Airport (SIA). 

Although SIA doesn’t get its water from West Plains wells, but rather from the SVRP Aquifer, in June 2017 four existing monitoring wells on SIA property (drilled earlier for a different purpose) were tested for PFAS. Three of the four wells revealed PFAS at “higher than the established screening levels”. All three wells showing PFAS contamination were at the northeast end of the airport property consistent with the generally northeasterly flow toward the Airport Paleochannel. Even with all the publicity around the Airway Heights contamination in 2017, SIA officials did not disclosure their findings. Were they just hoping the problem would go away and no one notice, that Fairchild would end up with all the blame?

The trouble is that some of the well owners “down-paleochannel” from SIA (and not in the Fairchild Test Zone) were concerned enough about the adjacent Fairchild-related well contamination to have their well water tested at personal expense. They found high levels of PFAS especially of the types of PFAS used in the firefighting foams. Hydrogeologist Chad Pritchard went to work to secure a grant of $450,000 offered by the Washington State Department of Ecology to test wells in the “Pritchard Ecology Study Area”. In February 2020:

The last box to check was a routine briefing for the county commissioners prior to their expected vote to approve the grant application. What Lindsay [the Environmental Services Manager for Spokane County’s water resources department] didn’t expect is the phone call he says he received from commissioner Al French the day before the commissioners’ meeting.

Lindsay says French called to tell him the item had been removed from the agenda. When I asked Lindsay if French had given a reason for pulling the item he said he had; that French was “concerned about the timing and the potential effect on the airport.”

It helps to understand that there are powerful monetary interests here. SIA encompasses an area of 10 square miles with major opportunities for industrial development as well as airport expansion. SIA CEO Larry Krauter and Commissioner French (a developer as well as a County Commissioner) have been working for years to grow Spokane’s business community on the West Plains. Proven PFAS contamination coming from SIA might interfere with property values and development. 

Not only has SIA failed to disclosure it 2017 testing for PFAS and worked with Commissioner French to stall Pritchard’s efforts to gather more well data, but CEO Krauter has been quietly lobbying and filing legal arguments seeking to block efforts by the State of Washington to regulate PFAS. (See Erin Sellers’ excellent and exhaustive article “Airport CEO: Lawmakers should ‘wait and see’ before banning toxic PFAS” on

Commissioner French’s and CEO Krauter’s efforts to slow walk even the gathering of data on PFAS contamination of West Plains wells is a shameful breach of public trust. That they work instead to hide data and discredit the importance of the contamination is intolerable arrogance. It is, in Mr. French’s case at least, another example of Republican denial of science, akin to global heating denial in a misguided effort that they imagine serve the purposes of business development. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. During the mid-twentieth century asbestos was still used in fireproofing and insulation; mercury was something kids played with when a mercury thermometer was broken; and DDT was fogged from trucks in cities to kill mosquitos. Persistence in the environment and long term health effects of all these materials were little considered by the general public until the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962. Looking back, we tend toward the rosy idea that once “Silent Spring” was published everyone got right on board, but, in fact, there was considerable pushback, argument, and instilled doubt. (See the “Silent Spring” wikipedia article.) I conclude that my (and maybe your) understanding of historical events and how attitudes are changed is a gross simplification of the controversies that actually occurred. There will never be one hundred percent agreement about anything—and, as a corollary—changing attitudes in the general population is a complex and long term project. The founders and funders of libertarian think tanks like the Washington Policy Center understood this and acted on it long ago. 

P.P.S. In case you cannot tell from all I’ve written here, I find local geology and hydrogeology fascinating. If you really want to dive in headfirst here is a link to an well-illustrated readable document (on a computer screen zooming in and out) that fills in a whole lot of detail: