Former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base tested for water and soil contamination

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GWINN — The United States Air Force has spent the last four years testing water and soil samples at the former K.I. Sawyer Base for possible contamination.

AFFF or Aqueous Film-forming Foam, is commonly used on military bases across the country to smother flames from an aircraft crash, it was also used for training purposes until recently. Within AFFF are chemicals, known as PFAS, that are classified by the EPA as emerging contaminants.

Steve Schenden, Director of Operations, Sawyer International Airport, explains, “It’s an emerging contaminant is what it’s called because they’re starting to find it being persistent and seeing it accumulate.”

These contaminants can cause potential risk to human health and to the environment. There are two main chemical compounds of concern, PFOA and PFOS. AFFF was used at K.I. Sawyer and the chemicals have been found in the environment on base. 

Schenden continues, “It’s an emerging issue, it’s going to get very big. I believe the DEQ is going to go out and test all of the municipal wells all over the state and they’re measuring it down to parts per trillion.”

Local 3 spoke with the Department of Environmental Quality and was told they are overseeing all testing being done at K.I. Sawyer by the Air Force to ensure proper protocol is followed.

The Air Force examined multiple sites on base and found low levels of the PFOS chemical in one of four municipal drinking water wells, however, this was far below the EPA health advisory level; therefore, it is not believed to have any health effects to humans.

There was also tests done of all private wells within a four-mile radius. One private well tested positive for the PFOA chemical, this residence was given bottled water and the Air Force will be installing a water sanitation system.

In addition to testing all municipal and private wells, the Air Force has tested groundwater and surface water from multiple locations. In 2016, 15 locations on the former base were tested for PFAS in both the groundwater and surface water. Ten of the 15 locations’ groundwater tested positive in exceedance of the EPA’s health advisory level. Three of the 15 locations’ surface water tested positive in exceedance of the EPA’s health advisory level.

These locations and exceedances should have no effect on residents, though it may have effects on animals and the environment.

In 2017, the Air Force also tested surface water and sediment samples in seven locations. Four locations at Silver Lead Creek near the K.I. Sawyer Water Treatment Plant, and three lake locations; Stump Lake, Little Trout Lake, and Big Trout Lake.

All four locations at Silver Lead Creek tested positive and exceeded the human health non-cancer value (HNV) in surface water. None of the locations exceeded levels in sediments.

None of the lake locations had exceedances in surface water or sediments.

Representatives assured Local 3 that the drinking water at K.I. Sawyer is completely safe and meets all EPA drinking water criteria. 

Schenden says, “We are being very proactive, even beyond what the DEQ is requiring to monitor it here and to really keep track of it. To make sure we’re giving people good water.”

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