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Sacramento water company sues U.S. over toxic Cold War chemicals left by Air Force

DEQ Contractor uses Yuma tablet to document potential PFAS contamination. (Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy/Flickr)

A Sacramento-area water utility sued the federal government this week over groundwater contaminated by toxic pollutants used for years at the former Mather Air Force Base.

California-American Water Co. sued the U.S. government for the costs of cleaning up one of its tainted wells in Rancho Cordova. The company serves about 16,000 households and businesses in its Suburban Rosemont system. The tainted well — called the Nut Plains Well — is one of 29 wells in the Rosemont system.

The well had to be shut down for more than a year after tests showed it was contaminated with PFAS, a family of chemicals linked to cancer, thyroid problems, low infant birth weights and immune system problems.

Environmentalists say PFAS chemicals have become an increasingly dangerous pollution source in the nation’s water supply. Last fall the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., released a study saying PFAS was detected in 74 wells operated by community water districts across the state, including five in greater Sacramento.

The California-American well was the only one of the five where the volume of PFAs exceeded 70 parts per trillion, the “advisory level” threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some environmentalists say the 70 parts-per-trillion threshold is far too high.

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California-American’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, says the Air Force used firefighting foam containing PFAS starting in the early 1970s through 1984. The toxic chemicals then leached into the groundwater, the lawsuit says.

The base was closed in 1993 and has been turned into a business park and cargo airport.

The water utility said it had to install a $1.3 million water-treatment system in 2017 to filter out the PFAS in the groundwater.

The state has been pushing the federal government to take action on polluted sites. In 2018 the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board urged the Air Force to take action “to provide impacted well owners with clean drinking water.”

California-American filed an administrative claim last February with the Air Force for the $1.3 million in cleanup costs. According to the lawsuit, the Air Force denied the claim in September.

It wasn’t clear how many customers are served by the Nut Plains Well. California-American officials had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. In an interview last fall, the company’s regulatory policy director, Evan Jacobs, said regular testing “shows no detectable levels of PFAS class chemicals when the treated water leaves our treatment plant at the well.”

Mark Kinkade, a spokesman for the Air Force, wouldn’t comment on the Mather case but said the military is aware of PFAS contaminations at its sites.

“We live in the communities we serve and we share community concerns about the possible impacts our firefighting mission may have on human drinking water sources,” he said in an email. “The Air Force is proud to be a leader in the national response (to PFAS) and is executing an aggressive effort at active (bases), National Guard and closed Air Force installations to determine if our mission activities may have impacted human drinking water.”

The city manager of Rancho Cordova, Cyrus Abhar, said he’s been told for years by Air Force officials that the military would take responsibility for the pollution problems.

“We have received assurances all along they will do whatever it takes,” Abhar said. He said he wasn’t sure why California-American had to go to court for reimbursement; his main focus has been making sure the water being delivered by the company is now clean.

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© 2020 The Sacramento Bee