By Joshua Bowling
A massive, bipartisan infrastructure bill that cleared the U.S. Senate on Tuesday could help pay to remove harmful chemicals from drinking water around Air Force bases in Arizona including Luke, where thousands of residents just got the OK to use tap water after nearly six months relying on bottled water.
Officials at the Glendale base announced on Wednesday that recent test results show a filtration system is clearing the area’s drinking water of perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
Two years ago, Luke officials revealed the “forever chemicals” that had been used in firefighting foam on the base had seeped into the base’s surface and groundwater. Expanded testing showed the chemicals had spread to nearby water supplies and, in February, Luke officials began handing out bottled water to about 6,000 nearby residents and businesses until a solution was in place.
The cost is estimated in the billions to install and maintain filtering systems across the country. In Arizona, the toxins have been found near Luke, as well as the former Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Morris Air National Guard Base in the Tucson area.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package co-negotiated by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could give state agencies across the country $10 billion in grants to mitigate contamination and filter the PFOS and PFOA from drinking water. Sen. Mark Kelly, who voted for the bill, was part of a bipartisan working group of senators focused on water systems.
Under the bill, which still must be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives, Arizona would stand to get:
About $72 million annually for five years to install or maintain treatment systems at drinking water facilities.
About $6.8 million annually for five years to install or maintain treatment systems at wastewater facilities and in groundwater aquifers.
Arizona leaders have voiced concerns that the contaminated water in the Glendale and Tucson areas could spread to other nearby cities through underground aquifers. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord in statements praised the new funding as taking “critical steps to safeguard our water future.”
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Caroline Oppleman said the department is “working to understand this bill and (looking) forward to guidance from the federal government on how it will be implemented.”
Residents near Luke get the OK to ditch bottled water
The thousands of residents near Luke who have relied on bottled water for some six months can go back to using their tap water, base officials announced on Wednesday.
Luke and Air Force Civil Engineer Center officials will spend the coming weeks notifying affected residents that they can switch back to their regular water. They will give residents instructions on how to discontinue bottled water delivery, how to return water coolers or other equipment they received and how to continue receiving bottled water at their own cost, if desired.
Many have not been able to move into their homes at Luke Ranch Estates due to area’s drinking water contamination caused by nearby Luke Air Force Base.
“Our team partnered with Valley (Utilities Water Co.) and local authorities to reach a long-term solution as quickly as possible to ensure clean, reliable drinking water for the community,” Col. Anthony Mullinax, 56th Mission Support Group commander, said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce this goal has been achieved.”
Impacted water company Valley Utilities sent a notice to customers informing them that tests show “non-detectable” levels of the contaminants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which links the chemicals to cancer and birth defects, has a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. The advisory is not enforceable.
Cleaning up ‘forever chemicals’ across U.S. could cost billions
U.S. cities are increasingly grappling with these “forever chemicals” in drinking water. Cleaning the water is expensive.
One estimate — a June report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office — says cleaning the contaminants across the country comes with a price tag in the billions.
“Future PFAS investigation and cleanup costs will total more than $2.1 billion beginning in fiscal year 2021, which is in addition to $1.1 billion in actual PFAS costs incurred through fiscal year 2020,” the report says. “These costs will likely increase significantly, because (the U.S. Department of Defense) is still in the early phases of its PFAS investigation.”
The Air Force is footing the bill for the cleanup near Luke, base spokesperson Sean Clements said. That included providing the bottled water, installing the filtration system and maintaining the filtration system. The Arizona Republic has requested a breakdown of the total costs.
From Glendale to southern Arizona, building and maintaining these treatment systems is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
In southern Arizona, state officials are concerned the contaminants could spread to Tucson’s “central wellfield” — the city’s main source of drinking water.
Several backup drinking water wells in Tucson have been shut down because of the contaminants. The Department of Environmental Quality recently put $3.3 million into containing the toxins and preventing them from spreading to other drinking water wells.
“Cost to build treatment systems depend on variables like flow rate, water quality and end-use,” Oppleman said. “Operating these systems also varies in cost. We will continue to pursue every avenue available to allocate and/or share costs with the federal government and other involved parties.”