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Klamath Falls Air Base Tackles Toxins In Groundwater

Air National Guard
A map of the Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base showing where samples showed high concentrations of PFAS, which are highlighted in yellow.

Last year, high levels of carcinogenic chemicals were found at a military base in Southern Oregon. Now, environmental regulators are trying to see if those chemicals have leaked elsewhere.

The chemicals are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and they’re found in small amounts in a variety of consumer products, like nonstick cookware and stain-free fabrics. They’re also in a firefighting foam that had long been the industry standard for putting out petroleum fires.

Research in recent years has found that these chemicals can cause cancer and other health issues. The Environmental Protection Agency issued health guidelines in 2016 outlining the amount of PFAS that it considers to be safe for products. Firefighters now use a new formula of firefighting foam.

According to a 2018 report, firefighters at the Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base outside Klamath Falls used the high-PFAS firefighting foam regularly during weekly trainings from the 1980s until 2013. Some of it drained into Klamath Fall’s sewer system and showed up in wastewater, but most of it was dumped onto grassy areas around the base.

All six groundwater samples taken at the base had PFAS levels exceeding federal health guidelines; one of them was 5,700 times more than what the EPA says is safe.

There’s a chance those chemicals leaked into surrounding soil and groundwater, and could affect nearby water wells. The well providing drinking water to the city of Klamath Falls has not shown high levels of PFAS, according to 173rd Fight Wing Major Nikki Jackson.

Jackson helped form a working group of local and state agencies to spend the next few months determining how water flows from the air base so they can pinpoint where they should pull additional water and soil samples.

“We decided to get a group of our community partners together so we can proactively come up with a plan outside of but in conjunction with the CERCLA process to ensure our community has safe drinking water,” Jackson says.

CERCLA — more widely known as Superfund — stands for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. It’s administered by the EPA to identify and clean up hazardous materials.
Jackson says the EPA will pursue an investigation in the next year or two. Then the cleanup process could take several more years, or even decades.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.