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Spokane joins lawsuit against forever chemical manufacturers

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(The Center Square) – The City of Spokane is joining other municipalities in a lawsuit against chemical manufacturers that are downplaying their part in contaminating waterways nationwide.

The lawsuit originated in South Carolina and seeks damages for the effects of PFAS contaminants on natural resources and public health. PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are commonly used in firefighting foam and manufacturing settings.

Mayor Lisa Brown announced the coordinated effort just days after the Environmental Protection Agency set a national limit on the amount of PFAS contaminants allowed in drinking water.

“Protecting the health and safety of Spokane’s residents is our top priority,” Brown said in a statement earlier this week. “By taking legal action against these manufacturers, we are holding accountable those responsible for polluting our drinking water.”

The new standard cuts Washington State’s limit by around 50% and is expected to prevent exposure for around “100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” according to the EPA’s website.

Bonnie Brooks, Washington State Department of Ecology toxicologist, said there are approximately 12,000 different PFAS, but scientists only have information on about eight for human health and ten for ecological.

The EPA says the chemicals can affect the liver, immune system, developmental and reproductive systems and cause cancer and tumors in humans. Ecologically, the PFAS can cause subtle gene expressions and various growths.

“We have more information on human [effects] than we do ecological,” Brooks said, “and we still have very little information on either.”

Spokane began testing for the chemicals last year under a state regulation passed in 2022. Testing efforts recorded low detection levels at the Ray Street Well and Grace Well, and while it remained under the state regulations, it exceeded the new EPA standard, according to a news release.

Public Works Director Marlene Fiest said city officials intend to use the potential settlement funds to reinvest in Spokane’s public health and safety. Just last April, Spokane received almost $7 million as part of a settlement against Monsanto that officials used to clean up it’s hallmark river.

While customer rates primarily fund Spokane’s water systems, she said the potential settlement funds from this lawsuit could help offset future costs to implement solutions cleaning up PFAS.

Fiest said the city has no way of knowing the outcome of the settlement or future costs associated with solutions, so it’s hard to say how the situation could affect customer rates down the road.

Since the EPA just set the national regulation, the next few years will act as a monitoring stage to better implement effective solutions when the deadline to meet compliance comes, she said. While Spokane’s levels are over the new standard, they are still minimal compared to others.

“Initially, what we have to do is continue our testing and really get an understanding of where we’re seeing these contaminants in our system,” Fiest said.

The EPA regulation is very conservative, and while one of Spokane’s wells tested above compliance, Fiest said, it does not require the city to cut off access.

By the EPA’s standard, public water systems have three years to complete initial monitoring but should continue after that to maintain compliance. Starting in 2027, those corresponding departments must also notify the community of the PFAS levels in the water.

Solutions limiting PFAS to the new standard or below must be implemented by 2029, according to the EPA. After that, officials are to take action and notify the public whenever maximum contaminant levels become a violation.

“This is all new regulation,” Fiest said. “We have a little more data maybe than some other states do, but it’s still something we’re learning from and want our citizens to be aware of.”