FARGO — A group of human-made compounds sometimes referred to as "forever chemicals" can be found in the environment in many places around the United States, including the soil and groundwater under several military sites in North Dakota.
The contamination includes soil and groundwater under the Air National Guard base near Fargo's Hector International Airport as well as U.S. Air Force bases at Minot and Grand Forks, according to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.
The agency said those military installations have "elevated" levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, with the contamination primarily due to chemical firefighting foams used to combat aircraft fuel fires.
PFAS are a large family of chemicals used in a variety of products including firefighting foam, grease-resistant food wrapping, clothing, medicine, nonstick coatings and carpeting.
Called "forever" chemicals because they don't easily break down in the environment or in living tissue, PFAS are known to have adverse health effects in humans, including low birth weights and cancer, though at what levels they are dangerous remains under debate by scientists.
Besides the locations already mentioned, communities in the region known to have PFAS contamination include the city of Bemidji, Minn., and the Minnesota National Guard's Camp Ripley near Little Falls, in central Minnesota.
In the case of Bemidji, the city closed down a number of drinking water wells located near the city's municipal airport several years ago after they were found to be contaminated with PFAS.
Bemidji has since embarked on a multi-million dollar project to build a treatment plant that can remove forever chemicals from the city's water supply.
Because of contamination at sites across Minnesota, officials in that state recently unveiled a blueprint for evaluating and addressing issues involving PFAS.
The Minnesota plan envisions stronger regulations that would define PFAS as hazardous substances under Minnesota's Superfund law, which regulators have said would make it easier to hold companies responsible for cleaning up pollution involving PFAS compounds.
Under the plan, Minnesota is also looking to research how PFAS reach the environment, including the roles that landfills, compost sites and wastewater treatment plants play.
On a national level, the Environmental Protection Agency recently released a PFAS action plan some environmental watchdogs have criticized as inadequate, maintaining the EPA plan does not address ongoing sources of PFAS pollution, will not clean up legacy pollution and will not require reporting of PFAS releases.
The EPA states on its website that the agency is committed to supporting states, tribes and local communities in addressing challenges with PFAS and as part of that effort the agency is taking action to identify solutions to address PFAS in the environment.
The agency also notes that EPA career scientists reviewed a toxicity assessment for PFAS released by the EPA in January and made an initial determination that "the conclusions in assessment were compromised by political interference as well as infringement of authorship and the scientific independence of the authors’ conclusions."
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The agency said political interference constituted a violation of the agency’s scientific integrity policy and the documents have since been removed from the EPA website pending completion of a review.
Among independent groups that keep tabs on PFAS pollution is the Environmental Working Group, which maps locations where PFAS pollution has been documented.
According to the EWG website, PFAS compounds are a class of non-stick, waterproof, stain-resistant chemicals used in consumer products and industry. Some of the best known are PFOS, which were formerly used to make DuPont's Teflon and PFOA, which was used in Scotchgard produced by 3M.
EWG maintains that even low-level exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened childhood immunity and other health problems.
According to EWG, more than 2,300 sites in 49 states have PFAS contamination, including several locations in North Dakota, many of which have connections to the military.
The Department of Defense has looked into the PFAS contamination at the Air Force bases in Minot and Grand Forks as well as the Air National Guard base in Fargo and the agency is continuing to evaluate those sites, according to David Bruschwein, director of the division of municipal facilities for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.
ND drinking water testing shows PFAS issues rare
Bruschwein said the state of North Dakota has done several of its own evaluations of PFAS contamination, including a recent study of the drinking water of about 50 communities across the state.
He said the findings of that study have yet to be released, but he said in general the study found PFAS in only a few of the drinking water systems it checked, describing the levels found as very low.
Bruschwein said systems where PFAS were found in drinking water include The Oakes Golf Club in Oakes and the municipal drinking water system in Michigan, where the chemicals were detected but below quantifiable levels, and the Willowbank Hutterite Colony near Edgeley, where Bruschwein said PFAS levels were negligible.
He said as part of that study PFAS were detected in Fargo's drinking water, but concentrations were so low they could not be quantified.
PFAS are not currently regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, so many municipalities around the country do not routinely test for their presence in drinking water, Bruschwein said.
In 2018, North Dakota officials checked for the presence of PFAS in a number of communities.
Bruschwein said PFAS were found where officials expected to find them — in places like landfills and in wastewater — and he said the concentrations detected were small.
As a part of that study, drinking water systems were checked in seven communities — Beulah, Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, Gwinner, Jamestown and Minot.
And while PFAS were found in all of the systems except for Gwinner, levels were very low and did not exceed the EPA's health advisory level established for PFAS of 70 parts per trillion, according to the study's findings.
"Detections in drinking water treatment plants were low — low enough that they may be explained by something as simple as a gasket or glue containing Teflon, or another PFAS chemical commonly used in piping or plant construction," the 2018 report stated.
Past testing has detected PFAS in the drinking water of North Dakota National Guard training camps near Garrison, Valley City and Grafton.
And while the National Guard is continuing to look at those sites, Bruschwein said it is his understanding the concentrations of chemicals found so far have not been concerning.
When it comes to sites like Minot, Grand Forks and Fargo, the Department of Defense is still working on getting a clear picture of what is there, Bruschwein said.
The question of what ultimately should be done with PFAS-contaminated sites is one officials across the country are still trying to answer, Bruschwein added.
The North Dakota Air National Guard base where PFAS were found in soil and groundwater is located in north Fargo near Hector International Airport.
The city of Fargo takes its drinking water from the Red River from intakes on the south side of town, upstream from the air base, and Bruschwein said that to date no concerning PFAS contamination has been found in Fargo's drinking water.
According to the North Dakota Air National Guard, after the soil and groundwater contamination was found in certain spots around the base in Fargo a follow-up investigation was ordered.
The additional investigation will focus on determining the nature and extent of contamination and potential off-base pollution migration, but just when the follow-up happens will be determined by Department of Defense officials on a priority basis, the North Dakota Air National Guard said.
The Department of Defense has said the heavy clay soils in Fargo serve to slow the movement of PFAS and according to the Air National Guard the Fargo base is considered a low priority for follow-up investigation because of the soil involved and the fact no drinking-water wells are located near the installation.
The Air National Ground noted test locations on the base are nearly 1.5 miles or further from the Red River.
'Highly toxic in small amounts'
While the EPA has issued a health advisory level for PFAS in drinking water, putting the threshold for potential health risks at 70 parts per trillion, a number of state governments and independent scientists would say that even at that tiny concentration PFAS can pose a danger.
That's according to Alissa Cordner, an environmental sociologist and associate professor of sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and co-director of The PFAS Project Lab, a group of more than a dozen college and university researchers who since 2015 have been tracking PFAS contamination in things like drinking water.
"Scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that these chemicals are highly toxic in relatively small doses," Cordner said, adding that when her research group began its efforts, PFAS contamination was a small area of concern for environmental health scientists and regulators.
"Now," she said, "it is clearly emerging as one of the major threats to public health in the U.S., especially through drinking water contamination."
Cordner said one reason the chemicals are so concerning is their durability — they do not break down easily in the environment or the human body and therefore tend to accumulate in tissue.
Because of that durability, firefighting foam released into the environment many years ago at airfields and military installations may still pose a danger, according to Cordner.
"Even decades-old contamination can be a real concern for human health," Cordner said, adding that issues surrounding PFAS are unlikely to fade anytime soon.
"We see no end in sight for the projects that we're going to be working on," she said.