‘It’s devastating’: East Selah residents could have unusable water for decades

Private wells near Yakima Training Center test high for potentially dangerous chemicals

SELAH, Wash. — For the past six years, East Selah resident Brandi Hyatt and her family have unknowingly been drinking well water contaminated with high levels of a potentially dangerous group of chemicals called PFAS.

“It’s been devastating,” Hyatt said. “We’ve been raising our children on a chemical that’s known to cause terrible cancers and diseases.”

Hyatt received a letter last fall from the U.S. Army asking for permission to test her well for chemicals that may have seeped into the groundwater from aqueous film-forming foam — a flame retardant previously used at the nearby Yakima Training Center.

Out of 108 wells tested so far, officials have found 38 wells serving 56 homes that had PFAS levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.

With a contaminated well, families must switch from the tap to bottled water

Hyatt said they were notified in February that their well had tested for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at 270 parts per trillion — more than three times the level the EPA believes is safe to drink.

The Washington State Department of Health recently set the safe limit for PFAS in drinking water even lower at the state level at 10 to 15 parts per trillion.

However, military officials told community members at a public meeting Thursday that they would be relying on the much higher threshold set by the EPA and would only provide free bottled water to people whose wells tested at or higher than 70 parts per trillion.

Hyatt said her family — including her two young children — have had to stop using the well water coming out of their tap indefinitely and switch to bottled water for most daily activities, including drinking, cooking, washing produce and brushing their teeth.

“As far as adjusting our daily lives, I mean, we can’t just drink water from our home anymore,” Hyatt said. “It changes every part of your daily routine, just to try to be safe in your own home.”

Long-term exposure to PFAS in drinking water could increase cancer risk, cause developmental delays in children

According to the EPA, research shows exposure to certain levels of PFAS can cause decreased fertility, increased high blood pressure in pregnant women and developmental delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations or behavioral changes.

Other possible negative health effects include increased risk of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers, interference with the body’s natural hormones and increased cholesterol levels or risk of obesity.

It can also reduce the body’s immune system to fight infections and reduce its response to vaccines. Researchers are still working to determine the long-term effects of exposure to high levels of PFAS.

“It’s been devastating to know that there’s health conditions that we’ve been dealing with that are more explained now, that were unexplained before,” Hyatt said.

The Washington State Department of Health health officials strongly recommends that anyone whose drinking water tests high for PFAS switch to an alternative water source, such as bottled water.

According to the DOH, switching water sources is, “especially important for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding and formula-fed infants, as these groups drink more water per pound of body weight than most people.”

State health officials do not consider showering or bathing to be a significant source of PFAS exposure at this time, but research is still developing their understanding of the resulting negative health impacts.

Hyatt said even though the risk from bathing is relatively minimal, they’ve decided to shower instead at the YMCA to limit any further PFAS exposure for the children, regardless of how small it may be.

“We are taking our children to the Y to swim and have fun and then, of course, have a shower afterwards to try and bring some sort of normalcy into their lives, when it’s completely abnormal to not be able to use the water in your home,” Hyatt said.

Federal clean-up efforts could take 30+ years to complete

About a hundred community members gathered Thursday at the Selah Civic Center to hear from Army officials and representatives from state and county agencies about the long-term plans to address the well contamination.

Private well testing and the provision of bottled water are a few of the short-term actions included in a decades-long federal plan to clean up contamination under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Yakima Training Center Installation Restoration Program manager Mark Mettler said they’re about to head into the second phase of the CERCLA process, which will begin in summer 2022 with another round of private well testing.

However, a timeline provided by officials during the meeting Thursday shows it could be upwards of 30 years before the community could regain access to clean drinking water from their wells.

“It’s very frustrating because I feel like even if they could move faster, they won’t because they’re stuck to this plan,” Hyatt said. “They can’t offer immediate assistance beyond bottled water right now.”

Residents feel ‘stuck’ with few options to move forward

In lieu of relying solely on bottled water, Hyatt said residents could try to install a system that would filter the PFAS out of their water, but the initial cost is high and the system would require additional maintenance in the long-run.

“At this point, yes, people can move forward with taking care of that themselves, but it’s a really big bill to foot and I know that there are going to be a lot of people that aren’t going to be able to afford to consider that,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said another option would be to try to sell their house, but conversations with real estate agents have led her to believe even if someone was willing to buy a home with a contaminated well, the property value would likely be much lower than it has been in the past.

Additionally, Hyatt said several of her older neighbors bought their homes to live out the rest of their retirement and now, she said it’s unlikely they’ll see a resolution to this problem before they die.

Hyatt said her family ultimately decided against moving because they didn’t want to leave their friends and neighbors in an impossible position without trying to help them.

“It’s important for us to raise awareness and protect the people that live around here, so that we can get a unified voice and say no to 30 years,” Hyatt said. “We will not wait 30 years to have this situation mitigated.”

Community working together to warn neighbors, ask lawmakers for help

Hyatt said one of her main concerns is the lack of awareness in the greater community about the potentially hazardous drinking water. At this time, the Army is only notifying residents whose wells they’re seeking permission to test.

“Nobody knows until they get a letter on their doorstep from the military requesting to test their well that they could potentially be impacted by this and YTC has yet to know how far spread this is,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said that’s why she and several of her neighbors have been going door-to-door in the area to let people know their drinking water may be contaminated, even if they haven’t received a letter from the Yakima Training Center yet.

“It’s very important that people have safe access to clean drinking water and it’s not being afforded to us right now,” Hyatt said.

In addition to door-knocking, Hyatt said they’ve been reaching out to county officials, representatives and senators to see if they can help provide them with additional resources or a better short-term solution than just relying on bottled water.

“We need those that have the ability to go above that and provide resources and access to safe water to step up now and be a part of saving people’s lives and taking care of a community,” Hyatt said.