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Des Moines Water Works Pressures State Agencies To Clean Up PFAS Contamination

The Des Moines Water Works is putting pressure on state agencies to clean up chemical contamination from a nearby military base. The utility suspects the substances are reaching its source waters, though not customers' tap water.

The Des Moines Water Works is putting pressure on state regulators to clean up contamination at a nearby military base. In letters to the state Department of Natural Resources and theIowa Attorney General’s Office, the utility called the chemicals a public health concern.

Earlier this year, a government report obtained by IPR confirmed toxic chemicals called PFAS had contaminated surface water and groundwater near the Air National Guard base in Des Moines.

At some testing sites on the base, levels of the chemicals were nearly 200 times the health advisories set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to military bases and manufacturing sites across the country. The chemicals can be toxic at trace levels and stay in the environment for extended periods of time. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a higher risk of certain cancers and other medical conditions.

Now the Des Moines Water Works is calling on the DNR and the attorney general’s office to help clean it up. In letters sent to the agencies last month, the utility said the contamination at the base “presents immediate and potential danger to public health and the environment” and that “a prompt response is necessary in order to safeguard public health."

Based on the utility’s own analysis, PFAS from the base is leaching into Frink Creek, where it flows into the Raccoon River upstream of the Water Works’ surface water intake. While further testing shows the chemicals are not being detected in customers’ tap water, the intake is considered “a critically important part of the water supply infrastructure."

“Any time that we know that there is a contaminant that’s making its way into the river, no matter how small an amount, we try to affect that, try to eliminate that,” said Des Moines Water Works COO Ted Corrigan.

In a letter to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the utility cited other instances of PFAS contamination across the U.S. Other citiesandstates have suedchemical manufacturers or federal agencies over the pollution, which has been linked to the use of fire suppressant foams that were standard at military installations.

Corrigan says he hopes to see the state handle the remediation on its own.

“We’re going to allow the DNR and the Air Force to work through the process and see what kind of a plan they come up with. But it’s our hope that they will develop a plan that will stop the movement of those contaminants off of the guard base,” Corrigan said.

At press time, the Attorney General had not yet formally responded to the letter, though office spokesman Lynn Hicks says the department is following the DNR’s lead.

“[W]e are working with the DNR as it assesses the levels of contamination, sources and other issues, and then will determine a course of action,” Hicks wrote in an email.

The DNR is in the process of analyzing more samples from in and around the creek, in conjunction with the Water Works. In a formal response to the utility, the DNR’s Ed Tormey said the department looks forward to working with the Water Works on remediation.

“The sampling plan focuses on identifying potential sources of PFAS in this area of the watershed. The data collected in this sampling event will be shared with you when it is received from the laboratory. The data will also be used by the Department to inform future steps to address this issue,” Tormey wrote.

A military analysis also found high levels of PFAS contamination in the surface water and groundwater near the Air National Guard Base in Sioux City. Researchers suspect chemicals at that location may be seeping into the drinking water wells of private homeowners in the area.

The Air National Guard is in the process of coordinating further testing at and around both bases.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter