Kalispell Officials Work Toward Solutions Following ‘Forever Chemical’ Detection in Wells

Public works staff are applying for grants to replace two of Kalispell’s 11 drinking water wells after PFAS contaminants were found last year

By Maggie Dresser
A subdivision off of Three Mile Drive on the westside of Kalispell on Sept. 22, 2021 Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — more commonly known as “forever chemicals” — were detected in two of the 11 drinking source water well sites in Kalispell last year, city officials are applying for grants to replace the wells while working to educate the public about the contaminants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detected PFAS in the Armory well, where officials measured 3.6 parts per trillion (ppt) at the southern end of the city, as well as at the Grandview well at the northern end, where samples revealed 6.6 ppt.

Kalispell Public Works Director Susie Turner said that, while the detection came as a surprise to her, the concentration is roughly equivalent to seven drops in an Olympic-size swimming pool. The contaminants are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because of their strong carbon fluorine bond, which can take more than 1,000 years to degrade.

“It’s one of the strongest in nature, so it’s the most persistent,” Turner said. “It takes the longest to break down and that’s why they are called forever chemicals … they’re found in the air, soil and water and they’re probably in your blood and my blood.”

PFAS are considered “emerging contaminants” as the EPA continues to research the chemicals and the risks associated with exposure. Federal regulators are also working to establish a proposed Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). Although not yet formally adopted, the MCL proposal is set at 4 ppt and the agency is working to create protocol for things like frequency and duration of chemical sampling in wells.

In February, EPA released two proposed regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which would add nine PFAS to the list of RCRA hazardous constituents.

“One of the things I think is really important to let the public know is that PFAS at this point are an emerging contaminant, so that means there’s no regulation on it,” Turner said.

In response to the detection, which was first reported publicly by the Daily Montanan, city staff are collecting more information and Turner is applying for funding with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to replace the wells, a project estimated to cost $6 million. Taking the two wells offline is not an option due to a high demand on the municipal water supply.

“As far as public drinking water supplies, we are held to a primary drinking water standard and the city of Kalispell is 100% dedicated to ensuring that we are within regulatory compliance for the water we serve to the public,” Turner said. “We’re dedicated to continue our understanding of what we’re up against and what we’re going to do about it.”

As part of EPA’s unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR) process, agencies asked Kalispell to participate in sampling in 2014 and 2015. At that point, no PFAS were detected.

In 2022, Kalispell participated in a voluntary testing program with DEQ when five city wells were sampled. The Armory Well, which produces 26% of the city’s lower zone’s combined water sources, tested positive in March with 2.6 ppt and was tested again in June when a reading of 3.3 ppt was detected. The Grandview Well, which produces 38% of the upper zone’s combined water sources, tested positive for the first time in July 2023 when 6.6 ppt was present.

Turner said the sampling process is complicated and sensitive and few laboratories in the country have the proper equipment to accurately conduct the testing. Once certified city staff collected the samples, they were sent to an out-of-state lab for analysis, and with 75% of the labs testing at a 95% accuracy rate.

“Chemists will tell you they don’t typically deal with a 10 to the negative 12th number,” Turner said. “They are so small – even in today’s technology, it’s really challenging to get down to those lower numbers.”

PFAS contamination has been detected frequently on military bases due to the historical use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a regularly used fire suppressant. The DEQ lists the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, the Helena Army Aviation Support Facility, Fort Harrison, the Montana Air National Guard in Great Falls, and the former Air Force Base in Glasgow as sites of concern.

Turner said that since the Armory Well in Kalispell is located at a former armory site, it’s possible the PFAS source is related to military operations.

“We can speculate but there’s no way to confirm,” Turner said.

Discerning the Grandview Well’s source of contamination is more of a puzzle for city officials, with Turner saying there’s not enough information to speculate about the origin of those PFAS.

“There are a lot of holes, so when you’re starting to develop trend lines and understand potential sources of contaminants coming into your water source, you’ve got to have some really good data to support what your conclusions are,” Turner said.

According to EPA, PFAS were originally manufactured in the 1940s and are found in everything from waste sites, pizza boxes, makeup products, biosolids, fish, and fire extinguishing foams.

Officials aren’t sure exactly how harmful PFAS exposure is to humans, but studies have shown that contaminants can lead to an increased risk of cancer, weight, immune function, developmental and reproductive issues.

“EPA is reviewing the literature and epidemiology on populations exposed to these compounds and evaluating the exposure data. The process of developing regulatory standards is careful, deliberative and data based,” Marisa Lubeck of EPA’s Region 8 said in an email. “Data collected on PFAS and lithium from drinking water systems will help the EPA make determinations about future regulations and other actions to protect public health under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Turner and Joe Schrader, Kalispell’s Utility Management Superintendent, plan to continue educating the public about the detection and recently hosted an open house to answer resident’s questions. Turner said her office continues to receive a slew of criticism, but she encourages the public to continue asking questions.

At the Kalispell City Council meeting on March 4, residents voiced concerns over PFAS and asked officials to keep the public posted on the investigation process.

“We feel that this is a difficult situation for you and the whole community and the more ability there is for the public to feel like they can turn on the city council meeting and know they can hear an update, it will probably save calls to the staff,” Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead said.

As part of Kalispell’s next steps, PFAS sampling will be performed in March and August 2024 and officials are looking into methods to mitigate the impacts of the chemicals. For example, drinking water systems can reduce concentrations of PFAS through blending of water sources. Kalispell’s water is already pumped into the distribution system, and mixed with water sources to reduce concentration levels.

Due to the detected PFAS concentration levels in both the Armory and Grandview wells combined with the mixing that occurs, it is unlikely the contaminants concentrations would exceed the minimum reporting limits.

Residents can reduce exposure by installing a home or point-of-use filters, which can be installed underneath a sink. Boiling, freezing or letting water stand does not reduce PFAS levels.

“Everything that we’ve done thus far has been proactive in getting information out to the public, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be aware of what’s happening, and they should call and ask us questions,” Turner said.