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Air Force and local authority plan free water system to replace contaminated wells

A map of the proposed water system.
Ellsworth Development Authority
A map of the proposed water system.

About 100 South Dakotans have relied on bottled water and a filtration system for nearly four years after Ellsworth Air Force Base learned it was contaminating drinking water with dangerous chemicals.

The base and the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority are now working on a permanent, more cost-effective solution by developing a water system for the impacted areas.

Residents near Box Elder with contaminated water will receive the water for free, and others can opt into the system as paying customers.

"It will have some of the best water in western South Dakota and that will be flowing through there. And people are eager to get that water," said Glen Kane, managing director at the Ellsworth Development Authority.

The chemicals in the water are per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of thousands of different synthetic chemicals.

They came from firefighting foam used at Ellsworth Air Force Base that seeped into the groundwater. The foam was also used at other military bases around the country.

Kane discussed the proposed water system Wednesday during a series of lectures about PFAS in Rapid City.

The sessions were part of the Black Hills Defense & Industry Symposium, which also discussed developments with the B-21 bomber and the local defense industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency says some PFAS are dangerous at certain levels of exposure.

The EPA has an advisory but does not yet have a maximum exposure standard. And it's still studying the best way to remove PFAS from water that's already contaminated.

"The Air Force standpoint is they're not waiting for that guidance. They're saying let's get these people free water," Kane said.

Ellsworth Air Force Base and the Development Authority began studying the future water system in September. The study is funded by the Air Force.

The groups decided to obtain water from the Madison Aquifer at a spot near Rapid City. A pipe would bring the water east toward the impacted area, which includes a mobile home park.

The groups are now studying the cost, funding and engineering options.

Kane said the goal is to put the project out to bid this September and have the water flowing by September 2024.

The Ellsworth Development Authority will own and operate the water system. It will also help secure funding, including some from the Air Force.

Ellsworth Air Force Base and the Development Authority previously teamed up to build a wastewater treatment plant for the base and city of Box Elder.

Kane said this partnership allows for more diverse funding sources and speedier construction. If the Air Force tried to address these issues alone, it could only use federal money and would be slowed down by additional regulations.

PFAS chemicals

The EPA says PFAS exposure can cause cancer and developmental delays, problems with hormones and cholesterol, and impact the immune system by reducing the impact of vaccines and ability to fight infections. The chemicals can also impact animals.

Exposure can happen through contaminated drinking water, dust, and the air, according to the EPA. Mothers can pass PFAS onto their children in utero or through breast milk.

Exposure can also happen through certain nonstick cookware, food packaging, makeup and other products.

Researchers at the School of Mines say climate change could make it more difficult to remediate PFAS contamination.
Arielle Zionts
Researchers at South Dakota Mines say climate change could make it more difficult to remediate PFAS contamination.

Industries that use PFAS have known about their danger since the 1970s but didn't share studies with the EPA until 2000, according to Harvard Professor Philippe Grandjean.

Ellsworth Air Force Base began testing water in October 2016 after the Air Force ordered studies at 200 bases.

The base announced in October 2018 that it identified contaminated wells and would provide families with clean water.

It eventually found that 26 private wells have PFAS levels at 10 times the amount the EPA advises is safe. The wells are outside of Box Elder, within 2 miles of the base.

New EPA research found that PFAS are harmful at "much lower levels of exposure" than it previously thought. The agency says it expects to update its recommendations on exposure levels.

The EPA also has a new PFAS plan that includes setting enforceable limits on drinking water by March 2023.

Some states and manufacturers are taking their own steps to protect the public from PFAS, according to the Safer States organization.