Firefighting foam, used at airports and military bases, has been identified as a source of toxic PFAS chemicals. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration)
Nearly 100 families living in Box Elder have been drinking bottled water provided by the military for the past five years.
That’s because their water system was contaminated with chemicals used in firefighting foam at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base.
And Sioux Falls has had 21 wells — a significant amount of its water production from the Big Sioux aquifer — shut down for years due to similar contamination from the firefighting foam used at its airport and Air National Guard base. The city and the airport are separately suing chemical makers for the impact on the city’s infrastructure.
The chemicals in both places are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which at certain levels may be associated with a variety of health problems. The chemicals have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s and don’t break down easily or quickly in the environment or in the human body. The chemicals can be found in everything from firefighting foam to children’s clothes to soil to water. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed what would be the first national standard regulating levels of PFAS in drinking water.
Hundreds of utilities already tested across the country have levels of the “forever chemicals” above the proposed limits in their water supplies and would need to build infrastructure to treat their water, or find another source of uncontaminated water to meet the standards. All other public water systems would need to be tested if the standards are approved.
The Ellsworth Development Authority and Sioux Falls were approved for a combined $22 million in drinking water loans from the state last year to address their contaminated water. Those loans are just to cover new water mains and a new well for each site — it doesn’t include the cost of installing technology that could remove the chemicals from Sioux Falls’ existing wells, which could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some estimates put the total cost of meeting the proposed regulations for the entire country at around $400 billion, which is more than 200 times the funding made available so far by the federal government to treat PFAS-contaminated water.
The question now is where the rest of the money will come from.
Companies that use the chemicals are already embroiled in lawsuits. Water customers and taxpayers are the next in line to foot the bill, said Jay Gilbertson, manager of the East Dakota Water Development District, based in Brookings.
“The water is only as good as the water needs to be to meet all the standards,” Gilbertson said. “As standards get more stringent, for good health reasons, it probably means we’ll have to pay more for the water. It costs money to take things out of the water — that’ll be the cost of clean drinking water.”
Impacts of stricter regulations on South Dakota
Aside from the Sioux Falls and Ellsworth examples, South Dakota has had at least three other instances of known PFAS contamination, including in wells at National Guard facilities near Custer and in Rapid City and in the water supply for the city of Pierre, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
Dale Brewer, superintendent of the Pierre water department, said the city was flagged for chemical levels in its drinking water above 50 parts-per-trillion in 2014. But after re-testing the groundwater source, the test came back with a non-detectable chemical level, he said. The city switched to treated Missouri River water in late 2022.
While those three instances were below the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts-per-trillion at the time of testing, none of them would pass under the EPA’s proposed standard of four parts-per-trillion.
Groundwater and soil near the Sioux Falls airport was contaminated at a combined rate of up to 255,100 parts-per-trillion in 2018, and groundwater and soil at Ellsworth Air Force Base were contaminated at a rate of up to 551,000 parts-per-trillion in 2016, according to analysis of military records by Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group.
The new standard would allow for no more than 4 parts per trillion of the chemicals in drinking water, which is comparable to a few grains of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
“From a health standpoint, what’s being learned is that the less, the better,” Gilbertson said. “There is effectively no level of these things that should be considered safe. We first thought a part per billion was safe, then 70 parts per trillion, and now we’re all the way down to 4 parts per trillion, which really says ‘we want none of this at all.’”
South Dakota starts first statewide testing effort
Kevin Christenson is tasked with testing 40 of South Dakota’s rural water systems for such contaminants.
He’s tested about 10 systems so far since January, but he won’t look at the results.
“I’m scared to find out what’s out there,” said Christenson, source water protection specialist with the South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems. “If you find anything, then you need to figure out the steps to remedy the problem, which a lot of people don’t have the answers for.”
The EPA is funding the project and analyzing test results that come in. A spokesman with EPA said the agency has not received validated sample results for the state yet, and that results will be publicly available later this year.
The multi-year initiative, funded on the federal level, involves testing nearly 50 systems across the state ranging from small to large systems, including some cities that will do their own testing.
“It’s not going to be cheap if there are systems — or even one system — with PFAS,” Christenson said. “Maybe a town has that one water source but then the next one is miles down the road that they have to purchase and install a pipeline to get to it. Or they have to drill a new well and find a new water source that doesn’t have PFAS in it.”
There hadn’t been a systematic effort to test for these chemicals in the state before, though other states have been testing sites for years and establishing their own limits on levels of PFAS in drinking water. But that’s because South Dakota rarely goes “looking for problems,” Gilbertson said.
“In the case of a contaminant of some kind that isn’t regulated yet or at all, there’s really not much incentive to go looking for it because nothing can be done,” Gilbertson said. “If there isn’t a standard then why test?”
Ellsworth begins construction, Sioux Falls awaits trial
Since contaminated water was found in Sioux Falls in 2013, the city regularly tests its drinking water for the chemicals. While it still has 21 wells out of commission, the city started purchasing water from the Lewis and Clark Regional Water system, a nonprofit, wholesale provider of treated water. Testing of water from the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System in 2019 showed PFAS contamination of 2.6 parts per trillion, which is below the proposed EPA standard.
Sioux Falls and its airport are two of thousands of plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against manufacturers of the toxic firefighting foam used across the country for decades.
Documents filed in the Sioux Falls case in 2019 in the U.S. District Court for South Carolina allege chemical-makers tested for and were aware of health risks of compounds used in a firefighting foam that for decades was tested and stored at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport and used by the National Guard and Sioux Falls firefighters.
The first trial involving water supply contamination involves Stuart, Florida, and is scheduled to go before a jury in June. Sioux Falls and other plaintiffs will have to wait and see what happens in that first decision to see if the city will go to trial or reach a settlement agreement.
The city would not answer questions about PFAS testing and mitigation from South Dakota Searchlight because it “does not comment on pending litigation,” said Gregg Engler, senior assistant city attorney for Sioux Falls.
The U.S. Department of Defense is investigating, inspecting and cleaning sites in South Dakota for PFAS contamination. The Camp Rapid National Guard base in Rapid City is complete while cleanup efforts continue at Ellsworth and National Guard facilities at the Rapid City and Sioux Falls airports.
The Ellsworth Development Authority has been working on a proposed water system to get water from Rapid City to impacted residents near the Air Force base at Box Elder. Construction is expected to start this summer.
The EPA has set a 60-day period for public comment on the proposed PFAS regulations, after which it can finalize the standard. The EPA expects to finalize the regulation by the end of 2023.
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