‘I feel anger and despair’: Selah families with PFAS-contaminated wells living off of bottled water

SELAH, Wash. — For years, the Yakima Training Center used a firefighting foam containing a group of chemicals called PFAS, which at high levels in drinking water, can cause long-term health problems like cancer, high cholesterol or fertility issues.

Over the past year, U.S. Army officials have had 300 wells in the East Selah area tested for PFAS and found 62 wells serving 87 homes with concentrations higher than the 70 parts per trillion lifetime health advisory set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Officials with the U.S. Army, Washington State Department of Health, Yakima Health District and other organizations held an open house Thursday at the Yakima Convention Center to answer residents’ questions about PFAS.

“We understand that it’s a huge issue, that’s it’s a hard problem that’s not going away,” said Lt. Colonel Tim Horn, commander of the Yakima Training Center. “But we’re not going away either; we are trying to do the best we can for everyone.”

“How do we sell our home and flee? Because here, we have a poisoned well.”

One of the East Selah homes — testing at 240 parts per trillion — belongs to Brandi Hyatt, whose family unknowingly consumed high levels of PFAS for years. They’ve been living off of bottled water provided by the U.S. Army for the past six months.

“My husband and I said that we were gonna ride this out for a year and see where it went,” Hyatt said. “And six months in, we’re looking at how do we sell our home and flee? Because here, we have a poisoned well.”

Hyatt said it’s clear from health officials’ recommendations that people shouldn’t be drinking water with high levels of PFAS. However, she said there’s still so much unknown, she doesn’t feel comfortable letting her family shower in the water.

“Your skin absorbs and so when you’re told that your skin is a relatively good barrier, but be sure that you’re showering in a well-ventilated area and that you don’t have open wounds or cuts, to me, that doesn’t sound safe,” Hyatt said.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, higher exposure to PFAS can cause:

  • Increased cholesterol levels.
  • Decreased birth weights.
  • Decreased immune response to vaccines.
  • Changes in liver enzymes that indicate liver damage.
  • Increased risk of blood pressure problems during pregnancy.
  • Increased risk of thyroid disease.
  • Increased risk of testicular and kidney cancer.

Hyatt said when she’s making choices for her family, including her children, she wants to make decisions that fall within the category of “safe” and not just “relatively safe.”

“How sad is that, that it’s normal that you have cobwebs in your bathtub because you haven’t used it in so long? And that you have to go to your local YMCA to hope that you can have a safer shower than in your own home?” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said they’ve looked into options like filtration, but they’re expensive and eventually would have to be replaced again. She said they’ve looked into selling their home, but the well contamination is a big obstacle to overcome.

“You have to disclose whether or not you have potable water; we do not currently have potable water in our home,” Hyatt said. “So a lender would not finance something like that, which means maybe you would have to look for a cash buyer. take possibly a lot less for the value of your home, so it’s not a good solution.”

EPA drastically lowers PFAS limit from 70 parts per trillion to less than 1/2 a part per trillion

Now, the EPA has drastically decreased the amount of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — known collectively as PFAS — they deem to be hazardous to human health.

The lifetime health advisory for PFAS has gone from 400 parts per trillion in 2009 to 70 parts per trillion in 2o16 to the interim updated drinking water health advisory issued June 15, 2022, which sets the limit for PFOA at 0.004 parts per trillion and the limit for PFOS at 0.02 parts per trillion.

According to the EPA, the updated advisory levels, “are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero.”

Many common tests for PFAS can’t detect anything below 4 parts per trillion and the best tests can only come close to 2 parts per trillion. Based on the EPA’s interim updated advisory, if you can detect any PFAS in your water, it’s already too much.

The interim health advisories will remain in place until the EPA establishes a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation. Unlike a lifetime health advisory, which is a recommendation, the regulation would be a limit the EPA would set and enforce.

EPA officials have said their goal is to have the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation in by Fall 2022 and the competed, finalized version out in Fall 2023 — about a year away.

U.S. Army continues to use 70 parts per trillion limit, despite EPA’s new interim advisory

Despite the EPA’s new interim advisory, the U.S. Army is sticking with the previous limit of 70 parts per trillion, meaning they’ll only be providing bottles water for homes that test over that limit.

“You have so many different levels of what our state considers safe, our Department of Defense considers safe, our EPA considers safe and then, as a mama, this much is safe for me,” Hyatt said, making a zero with her hand.

According to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice:

Because these interim LHAs are based on draft analyses that are still undergoing review by EPA’s Science Advisory Board, are below detectable limits, and are non-regulatory levels, DoD is instead looking to EPA to propose a regulatory drinking water standard, which is anticipated by the end of this year. In anticipation of EPA issuing a drinking water regulation, and to account for emerging science that may show potential health effects of PFOS and PFOA at levels lower than 70 parts per trillion, the Department is evaluating its efforts to address PFAS in drinking water and what actions can be taken to be prepared to incorporate a regulatory standard. As this evaluation is ongoing, the Army will continue to provide alternate drinking water based on the 2016 EPA lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

It’s unclear when those standards will be set or whether the DOD will be basing their decision off of the proposed regulation or waiting until after the EPA finalizes the regulation, which wouldn’t be until fall 2023 at the earliest.

“I feel anger and despair,” Hyatt said. “The despair is that we’re not doing better and the anger is that we need to be.”

But for now, only people who hit that 70 parts per trillion limit will get bottled water from the Army. Hyatt said she believes its dangerous for her neighbors’ health to continue drinking the water, but they might not be able to afford to do otherwise.

“No one’s taking care of them, but they still have this poison in their wells,” Hyatt said. “You know, when you are below 70, you’re getting a letter right now that says you’re good to go, no further action required. That is unacceptable to me. There’s a lot of action that is required.”

Next steps for contaminated wells near the Yakima Training Center

The U.S. Army is following the federal CERCLA process to address PFAS cleanup, but officials said it could take decades before anyone sees a substantial reduction in PFAS due to cleanup efforts.

Horn said the Army will continue delivering bottled water to residents with concentrations of PFAS at or above 70 ppt. They’re currently working to get a government contractor to help evaluate alternative short-term solutions that don’t rely on bottled water.

Within 60 days, people who are currently receiving bottled water will be contacted to schedule a home visit with that contractor, who will visit each home to collect information about the wells and evaluate current drinking water connections.

Horn said through that process, they should be able to identify some alternative drinking water solutions. He said there is no Phase 4 testing planned, but those contractors will resample drinking water wells when directed by the Army.

The Yakima Training Center is still looking for community volunteers to join their Restoration Advisory Board, which will meet for a few hours every three months to go over any new information and give feedback on draft plans.

“We have had other restoration advisory boards who have totally turned decisions around … because the community made us aware of situations where it really wasn’t the best idea,” U.S. Army Environmental Command’s Cathy Kropp previously told KAPP-KVEW.

For further information or clarification, contact YTC IRP Manager Mark Mettler at 253-966-8004 or mark.a.mettler2.civ@army.mil, or contact Joseph Piek with Joint Base Lewis-McChord at 253-966-0148 or joseph.j.piek.civ@army.mil.