Thousands near Luke Air Force Base had tainted drinking water; investigation underway

The Arizona agency that regulates utilities is calling together water companies near Luke Air Force Base in metro Phoenix, where drinking water was found to be contaminated with chemicals commonly found in firefighting foam.

The Arizona Corporation Commission is holding an emergency open meeting on March 3 to discuss the recent discovery of the chemicals — which prompted the U.S. Air Force to start distributing bottled water to thousands of residents and business owners.

Luke Air Force Base announced this month that studies showed high levels of contaminants had affected drinking water for about 6,000 people in roughly 1,600 homes as well as a few neighboring businesses.

Commissioner Anna Tovar has encouraged affected residents to join the meeting being held online.

"I want to make sure the residents and businesses near the base can trust the water coming out of their taps," Tovar said before the meeting.

How to watch the meeting:

Water bottle distribution underway

A massive water distribution site is being set up in the West Valley for families who live and work near Luke Air Force Base after drinking water samples showed high than allowed levels of certain chemicals.

According to a news release on Feb. 23, sampling of the water indicated the presence of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) at levels above the EPA's lifetime health advisory for drinking water. The chemicals are known to cause cancer in some cases, and stay in the environment for years.

 The U.S. Air Force says it will be distributing bottled water to thousands of residents and business owners near its base in suburban Phoenix until at least April, marking the latest case of chemicals from military firefighting efforts contaminating the water supply in a nearby community.

The base has recommended people use bottled water for drinking and cooking but deemed tap water safe for bathing and laundry.

"As far as we know, we can use it but not drink it," said Teresa McPherson, who lives in the area. "We wonder if it gets absorbed in our skin, and we worry about the dogs."

A contractor is scheduling deliveries of drinking water to the homes of people who picked up their first bottles this week, said Sean Clements, chief of public affairs for the 56th Fighter Wing at the base. Those deliveries will go on until a long-term filtration facility can be set up in April, Clements said Thursday.

Affected residents and businesses have been notified and may pick up bottled water at 7011 N. El Mirage Road from Tuesday through March 22. The distribution site will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

Those picking up water will be asked to provide a photo ID and a copy of a water bill.

"The Air Force has long roots in Glendale and Maricopa County, and we share community concerns about the potential impact of these compounds on drinking water," Brig. Gen. Gregory Kreuder said in a statement. "We are committed to maintaining the utmost transparency throughout this process as we continue to take actions that protect our communities and residents."

For questions regarding the water distribution, residents can call 844-610-8899.

Firefighting foam cited as cause for contamination

Officials with the U.S. Air Force have admitted to its role in introducing the two chemicals to the area.

"In the 1970’s, we began using PFOS and PFOA chemicals as part of firefighting foam," said Col. Ryan Richardson, Commander of Luke Air Force Base. "As a result of that, it’s believed some of that can leak down into the groundwater and potentially cause contamination."

The so-called forever chemicals from a class known collectively as PFAS were found during tests of water from Valley Utilities Water Co. The compounds are used in many industrial and consumer products and in foam used by commercial industries and the armed services to extinguish fuel fires.

The company said its water meets all EPA and Arizona drinking water standards and that no treatment is required because PFAS are not regulated by federal or state environmental agencies. Chief Financial Officer Bryan Thomas said the utility nevertheless is working with the base on "additional sampling and potential water treatment options."

Col. Richardson said the Air Force was not notified of the findings until last week.

"There were a number of wells that were tested, I believe six," said Col. Richardson. "Right now, we know at least one of those came back above that 7 parts per trillion life health advisory."

Similar contamination tied to the use of firefighting foam has been found in water supplies near dozens of military sites in Arizona, Colorado and other states and has triggered hundreds of lawsuits. Growing evidence that it’s dangerous to be exposed to the chemicals found in the foam has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider setting a maximum level for those chemicals in drinking water nationwide.

But they aren’t regulated now, meaning the base can’t be punished even though the EPA says the chemicals stay in the body for long periods and may cause adverse health effects.

The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, is scheduling an emergency meeting next week with five water companies to discuss concerns about the contamination, said Caroline Oppleman, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Oppleman said her agency is working with the base, regulators and federal and local officials to ensure actions are taken to ensure healthy drinking water for residents.

"We share community concerns about the potential impact of these compounds on drinking water," he said.

Water contamination reported in New Mexico, Colorado bases

The contamination problem is well known in neighboring New Mexico, where chemicals from several bases have seeped into local water supplies.

The state sued the U.S. Air Force in 2019 over groundwater contamination at Cannon and Holloman air bases, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.

In court documents, the state describes the contamination detected at the bases as shocking, saying it migrated into public and private wells that provide drinking water and livestock and irrigation water to surrounding communities.

New Mexico said its dairy industry has been affected as well as residential and commercial property values.

This year, the state challenged a federal court’s decision to combine its lawsuit over contamination at Air Force bases with similar litigation brought by hundreds of other jurisdictions nationwide.

The New Mexico attorney general’s office and state Environment Department argue the decision to centralize the claims violated the state’s sovereignty and could lead to extreme delays that further endanger public health and the environment.

The U.S. Air Force Academy in 2019 said unsafe levels of PFAS chemicals were found in groundwater at four sites on its Colorado Springs campus, south of Denver. The chemicals also have been discovered around the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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