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SELAH, Yakima County — In 2016, Brandi and Brad Hyatt purchased a three-bedroom home with sweeping views of the Cascades, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

Their house sits more than 4 miles east of this Central Washington community, beyond the reach of Selah’s public water system. So, the couple and their two children relied on a well punched into a basalt lava rock aquifer to quench their thirst, cook, clean and bathe.

In February two U.S. Army representatives knocked on the Hyatts’ door to deliver cases of bottled water and a carefully worded letter that noted a “potential risk to human health.”

The Hyatts’ well was one of 300 residential drinking water wells tested for contamination from two firefighting foam chemicals that seeped into groundwater flows from the Army’s Yakima Training Center.

They are part of a class of “forever chemicals” — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS — that rank as one of the most pervasive sources of pollution on the planet. They are found in soil, air, water and even the snow of Antarctica.

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In the human body, the two firefighting foam chemicals may disrupt the immune system, interfere with hormones, increase the risk of prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, high blood pressure in pregnant women and harm the reproductive system, according to studies cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Brandi Hyatt, after moving into house, started suffering from a thyroid condition with symptoms that included chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, stomach and chest pains. Some studies have shown that the firefighting foam chemicals, which were present in each glass of water she filled from the family tap, increase the risks of such illness.

“So many people have thyroid diseases, and I have always been a bit embarrassed by how out of control mine is,” Hyatt said. “Why is mine so all over the map? Maybe it is this poison that my body can’t clear — that I’ve been drinking for years now.”

Yakima Training Center is one of five military installations in Washington state where PFAS was used and then later detected in drinking water wells in neighboring communities.

Since the summer of 2021, the Army has been investigating the spread of these chemicals to residences around the training center by paying to test wells. Army officials use the results to determine who to provide bottled water as well as longer-term assistance that will provide safe flows of water for drinking and other uses.

In Yakima and elsewhere, the Defense Department has set this threshold at the level of a 2016 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory, which had set the limit at 70 parts per trillion for someone drinking from the same water source through the course of their lifetime.

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In June, however, the EPA dramatically lowered the lifetime advisory level of the two chemicals to less than 1 part per trillion.

Washington state officials earlier this year also set a much limit lower than the Defense Department as an “action level” when efforts should be made to reduce contamination. In the Yakima area, they have sought to get the Army to provide assistance for any residents with test results that exceed those limits.

“What we have been pushing for all along is to address that gap,” according to a state Ecology Department official Greg Caron, who has met with Army officials.

But the Army, so far, has stuck to the old, much higher threshold that the Defense Department has used across the country.

In Yakima, that policy has sown confusion and distrust among some residents whose homes sit downslope from the Yakima Training Center.

The Army-financed tests found 155 wells tested positive above the new EPA advisory level, according to a Seattle Times analysis of test results. But only 62 well owners currently qualify for Defense Department assistance.

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That leaves many others in a kind of limbo, with many hoping that the Defense Department standards will eventually change to include their wells.

“I’m not getting any help whatsoever,” said Karen Pruitt, whose family has been drinking well water for 30 years that earlier this year tested positive but below the 70 parts Army threshold but still far above the state level.

Some residents also question whether the chemical contamination has contributed to the illnesses of pets that sickened and died at early age. Some have spent their own money for well filtration to provide clean water for their homes and to irrigate their land.

“Not everybody can do that,” said Lance Ostrom, who spent more than $7,000 for the system to provide clean water. “At least we have water that’s not toxic.”

Army officials say they have made a lot of progress during the past year in determining the scope of the contamination.

The households that receive aid have wells that tested between 71 and 1,650 parts per trillion. In the weeks ahead, an Army contractor will visit these homeowners and figure out the best ways to move beyond bottled water to provide clean flows to taps, and then will be paid to make that happen.

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“We understand this is a huge issue. That it’s a hard problem that’s not going away,” said Lt. Col. Tim Horn, who commands the Yakima Training Center. “But we’re not going away either. We are trying to do the best we can for everyone.”

Research intensifies as PFAS spreads

PFAS can be found in products ranging from nonstick pans to waterproof coatings on jackets, fast food wrappers and even some kinds of dental floss. Since first brought into market in the 1950s, they have been used in hundreds of different manufacturing and industrial processes.

People most often are exposed to PFAS as they eat food or drink water that contains traces of the chemicals, but they can also take it into their bodies in other ways, such as breathing contaminated dust.

A survey completed in 2000 indicated the two chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — were present in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population. And when people routinely consume water contaminated with PFAS, the level in their blood may rise a lot higher.

Earlier this year, a federal public health agency released a survey of PFAS blood levels in 333 residents who live in Airway Heights, a city near Spokane with a public water system contaminated until 2017 with firefighting foam chemicals used at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

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That study found that the Airway Heights residents had levels more than eight times higher than the national average for PFOS, and more than five times higher for PFOA, and 56 times higher for a third chemical used in firefighting foams.

In Yakima County, the pollution appeared to spread from the 327,000-acre Army Training Center, which is used by Army and National Guard soldiers to practice maneuvers in an arid sagebrush landscape.

For decades, the risk of an aircraft crash at the training center spurred firefighting training. Until 1990, firefighters, most often twice a year, ignited 500 to 1,000 gallons of waste fuel in an unlined pit. Then, they deployed a foam that contained PFOA and PFOS to extinguish the blaze.

The fuel-soaked soil left behind prompted the Army, from 2003 to 2006, to contract a cleanup.

“We basically dug out everything that we could until we hit bedrock,” said Caron, the state Department of Ecology official based in Yakima who monitored that effort. “But at that point, we weren’t testing for PFAS. It wasn’t even on anyone’s radar.”

By 2020, the risks of PFOA and PFOS had prompted U.S. manufacturers to phase out production of the chemicals. That year, the Army financed a new round of testing for these chemicals in groundwater around the pit. The lab results revealed serious pollution of the groundwater under the pit, and contamination was also detected at six other sites.

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Through the decades, the chemical plume likely followed the movement of a groundwater aquifer that flows west off the Army’s land to downslope areas now subdivided into tracts with rural residences relying on wells for drinking water.

In such wells, the EPA through the years has dramatically revised the health risk assessment.

In 2009, the advisory for someone drinking from the same water source through the course of their life was 200 parts per trillion for PFOS and 400 parts per trillion for PFOA.

In 2016, this advisory was dropped to a combined level of 70 parts per trillion.

Then, the EPA announcement in June stated that this advisory was being replaced with a new one that put levels for both chemicals at far below 1 part per trillion. This reflected new science, including studies that found PFAS can reduce the effectiveness of tetanus, diphtheria and other vaccines, according to an EPA statement.

“These compounds are toxic at much lower levels than previously thought,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs with the Environmental Working Group, which has investigated PFAS pollution in the United States and advocated for regulatory forms.

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The 2022 EPA advisory levels are so low that they cannot be reliably detected by current tests. That means any positive test for the two chemicals — no matter how small — is over these limits.

Defense Department officials have said they may eventually lower the threshold for determining who gets assistance. That is likely to happen when the EPA sets a regulatory standard for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water that public water systems need to meet.

Since the June EPA advisory is below the limits that can be detected in laboratory analysis, the agency’s regulatory standard is expected to be higher so that utilities can test water samples and monitor for compliance.

EPA officials say this new rule should be finalized before the end of next year.

“The government process isn’t always as fast as you would like it be,” said Horn, the Yakima Training Center commander.

Washington officials’ frustration grows

The Army investigation of Yakima drinking water has been monitored by officials from the state departments of Ecology and Health, tasked by the Legislature with reducing PFAS pollution and human exposure in Washington.

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Caron, the Yakima-based state Ecology official, said he has repeatedly pressed Army officials to share more information about the locations of contaminated drinking water wells.

The Army, citing the need to protect homeowners’ privacy, has declined to do that.

The Army also has not consented to an Ecology Department request, first proposed in 2020 and again this summer, that would make the state agency a partner in the Yakima Training Center groundwater pollution cleanup.

Caron said the Army needs to develop a long-term plan for monitoring drinking water wells that considers how chemical concentrations may change as water flows through the aquifer.

So far, Caron said, the Army has failed to commit to a schedule for such sampling or to include wells that did not qualify for Defense Department assistance but might trend higher over time.

State officials have developed a briefing document for the state’s congressional delegation to help bolster support for their effort. They also are considering issuing an enforcement order that could lead to a court battle over the cleanup.

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“We are pretty frustrated,” Carson said.

State health department officials are also on edge.

They fault the Defense Department for portraying PFAS levels up to 70 parts per trillion as levels in drinking water. The state action levels that took effect Jan. 1 recommend control efforts, such as granular activated carbon filters, when PFOS reaches 15 parts per trillion in drinking water, or PFOA reaches 10 parts per trillion.

“If the Army says that there’s no further action needed, that’s according to the Army. That’s not according to us,” said Barbara Morrissey, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health.

A Seattle Times analysis of test results found that 31 wells exceeded the state standard but were not high enough for Army assistance.

Weary of bottled water

For well owners receiving Army assistance, the long-term plans for the taxpayer-financed cleanup range from installing granulate activated filtration systems to drilling deeper wells that could tap into PFAS-free water. There also is a possibility of hooking up to an alternate source.

In the meantime, delivery trucks each week drop off bottles of drinking water. Army officials have told residents they will provide sufficient allocations for drinking and cooking — about seven gallons per person per week — but not broader household use.

For some, that’s a problem.

Victoria and Torin Antijunti lack PFAS-free water for their cows and chickens. They are worried about selling meat and eggs that may contain traces of PFAS, but there are currently no regulations stipulating safe levels of PFAS in food, nor any state or federal testing programs that would foot the bill for laboratory analysis.

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The Antijuntis also use well water to bathe their three young boys, Hank, who is 4, and 7-month-old twins Bowen and Walker.

“You know when I’m showering my kids, they put water in their mouth, no matter what,” said Tori, 31.

Now a radiological technician at a Yakima urgent care center, Victoria Antijunti grew up within a quarter-mile of the Yakima Training Center and has been largely drinking from local well water since she was 5 years old. In 2016, she and her husband moved even closer to the post.

Within the past year, her parents’ well tested positive for low levels of several firefighting chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, at just under 70 parts per trillion, while her own well tested at just over that threshold.

Tori Antijunti is troubled by the possible impacts of her long-term exposure to the chemicals.

One of the twins — Bowen — was born with a severe heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. He has required two open heart surgeries, and will need a third as well as longterm surveillance. Antijunti calls him her “miracle child.”

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She recently learned that her other twin son has a less serious heart condition.

Antijunti said she worries a lot about the possibility that Bowen’s heart defect is linked to the chemicals in the well water. 

So far, the case for PFAS elevating the risk for heart or other birth defects is muddled. Laboratory animal studies have shown PFAS can increase the risks of birth defects in animals, and a recent study in China found the chemicals “may contribute” to congenital heart defects. But a large U.S. epidemiological study of the firefighting foam chemical PFOA did not find associations between elevated levels of the chemical in blood and most birth defects, including those in the heart.

Resources about PFAS

Information about products containing PFAS, health risks and how to reduce exposure

Washington state Department of Health: About PFAS

Environmental Protection Agency: Understanding risks of PFAS

Food and Drug Administration: Q&A on PFAS in food

Environmental Working Group: Guide to avoiding PFAS

Toxic Free Future: Quick guide to PFAS

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Health effects and resources

“My mind thinks that maybe it could have been something that caused this instead of, you know, just happening,” she said. “I always wonder. And I’ve been drinking it for so long.”

Brandi Hyatt drank from her family’s well for six years. The PFOA and PFOS contamination was more than triple the level of the Antijuntis’ well. Through a difficult summer battling her thyroid condition, she fretted about the health toll that the chemicals may have taken.

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Hyatt was troubled to learn that her neighbor — who drank a lot of water when weight training — also came down with a thyroid condition.

She and her husband, Brad, have many family members, and deep roots, in Yakima County. But they weary of bottled water and are considering moving — perhaps to a beach community in Oregon — if they can find a buyer who will not be spooked by the well contamination.

“It’s a huge thing for us to feel like that,” Hyatt said “We haven’t made any final decisions.”

Seattle Times videographer Ramon Dompor and Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.