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Kalispell officials plan more testing, possibly shutting down wells with discovery of forever chemicals in drinking water

by ELSA ERICKSEN Daily Inter Lake
| March 9, 2024 12:00 AM

Kalispell Public Works officials acknowledged Thursday that failing to publicize the detection of forever chemicals in city water earlier was likely a mistake.

Deputy Public Works Director Keith Haskins told attendees at a March 7 open house on the presence of PFAS contaminants in two municipal wells that the city was not required to disclose the findings. 

“I think part of it is we’re not required to report it, and part of it is we don't want to unnecessarily raise concern when we don’t really know how we’re going to move forward or what the risk really is to the individual person,” Haskins said, addressing residents’ concerns about the delay in notification. 

The affected wells — located at the Grandview and Armory well sites — were tested in July 2023, with results available two months later in September. The city did not publicly address the results until after the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom, published an article about the contamination six months later.

“But it’s a fair question.” Haskins said. “I think we probably should have reported this earlier.”

One of the wells at the Grandview site tested at 6.6 parts per trillion, according to the Daily Montanan, while the other tested at 5 ppt. The Armory site also tested at 5 ppt. 

The EPA’s interim health advisory level for PFAS is .02 ppt. 

Officials stressed that they are now adopting a proactive approach and pledged to communicate effectively with residents going forward. Thursday’s gathering in City Hall, organized in a roundtable discussion format, was part of that effort.

Public Works Director Susie Turner said that part of the difficulty in responding to the contamination comes from the lack of regulations pertaining to PFAS.

“PFAS are an emerging contaminant,” she said. “There are zero drinking water regulations associated with PFAS, so there is nothing that directs us as to what we need to do or what the limits are at this very moment. There are proposed maximum contaminant levels that are out there, but nothing is adopted at this point so all the information that we’re providing you is 100% proactive.”

Kalispell resident Sandy Taylor, who runs a piano business out of her home and is concerned about the health of her students, said she appreciated the steps the city has taken to address the contamination.

“I think they’re doing exactly what they can do,” Taylor said. “I think it’s scary stuff. My home is also a business, so I think I need to be proactive.”

Many residents expressed concern about the source of the contamination. Officials reiterated that they do not know where the PFAS originated from and, given the widespread nature of the chemicals, said it would be challenging to pinpoint with any degree of precision.

Haskins said that PFAS exists in a variety of products that people are exposed to every day, including non-stick cookware, stain resistant fabrics, waterproof clothing, food packaging and personal care items. 

“I think it is important for people to keep it in perspective of everything else that already has it,” he said. “It isn’t anything that we’re introducing. The only thing we add to the water is chlorine to the water to disinfect it. We’re not adding other chemicals. We don't really know what the source is but there are a lot of different products that have it.”

Under existing federal regulations, the city is not required to do anything about the contaminants, but officials said they plan to take the contaminated wells out of use as soon as possible. Two new wells are scheduled to be completed in June, which would allow for the discontinuation of the contaminated wells.

Additionally, Turner will be pursuing additional testing to better understand the nature of the contamination and provide more complete information to the public. 

“We sampled in January 2023 and got zero detect. And then we sampled again in July and that’s when we got a detect at Grandview,” she said. “It’s possible it could be erroneous, it could be a sampler error. We’re sampling in March and then July and sampling in the fall again. I’m building the data set to see if it was an erroneous sample or if we have some sort of influence coming in through the groundwater.”

The city will also be pursuing emerging contaminant funding via the EPA to replace the contaminated wells. However, officials cautioned that it is an extensive process that could take years to complete.

Meanwhile, officials recommend that residents concerned about the contamination install water filtration systems in their homes. The city recommends treatments such as activated carbon, ion exchange, or reverse osmosis. Other water purification methods, including boiling, freezing, and consumer water filters, have no effect on PFAS.

These systems typically cost around $1,500 to install. Because there are no regulations surrounding PFAS, the city will not take action to offset the cost to individual residents.

Cathy Mallard, a Kalispell resident, said she plans to install a water filter in her home after attending the open house and speaking with officials. 

When asked whether or not he would recommend drinking the water, Haskins emphasized that it is up to individuals to decide.

“It’s really a personal thing,” he said. “I think people need to take in the information for themselves and decide how much of a risk it is. All we really have is information to provide, and risk isn’t for us to decide”

Updates regarding water contamination will be provided on the city’s website.

Reporter Elsa Ericksen can be reached at eericksen@dailyinterlake.com.