Dayton files $300 million drinking water contamination lawsuit against Wright-Patt

The city of Dayton formally filed a drinking water contamination lawsuit against Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Defense on Monday, seeking damages of up to $300 million.

The suit, filed in the Southern District of Ohio, accuses the base and the DoD of failing to stop water containing a group of so-called “forever chemicals” known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances ― or PFAS ― from flowing daily into the city’s Mad River Wellfield. The wellfield is one of several that Dayton uses to supply drinking water to more than 400,000 customers in Dayton and Montgomery County.

The contaminants affect surface water, groundwater and the soil in the wellfield ― which borders the base’s Areas A and B ― according to the lawsuit. Several PFAS hotspots exist on the base, and failure to act now will cost millions of dollars, the city said in April.

“The city absolutely did not want to file this lawsuit,” Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said in a statement Monday evening. “We’ve invested more than four years trying to get (Wright-Patt) and the DoD to agree to take steps to mitigate ongoing contamination coming from the base into the city’s Mad River Wellfield and the aquifer that supplies those wells.”

Base officials declined to comment on Tuesday, citing the pending litigation.

As required by law, Dayton sent a formal letter to base and DoD officials in late March informing them of their intent to sue no later than May 4, unless they agreed to work with the city to mitigate the contamination problem. The Air Force previously declined the arrangement ― known as a tolling agreement ― that would have allowed continued cooperative work on the contamination problem while extending the time the city has to file a lawsuit under federal law, Dickstein said in April.

It’s disappointing that DoD twice declined the city’s offer for the tolling agreement, she said Monday.

Base officials in April disputed the city’s claims that PFAS from the installation is threatening Dayton’s drinking water supply. The groundwater near the base boundary is below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended action levels, the base said at the time.

The Air Force also conducts quarterly sentry well sampling to track any changing levels and regularly shares the information with the city, base officials said last month.

Dayton is seeking damages that range from $10 million to as much as $300 million, based on whether the DoD and Wright-Patt are willing to implement various treatment options to stop the alleged ongoing contamination, according to the lawsuit.

PFAS, dubbed “forever chemicals” for their longevity, can be found in firefighting foam, water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, waxes, polishes and some food packaging, according to the U.S. EPA. Studies suggest that exposure to the chemical might affect pregnancy, increase cholesterol levels and cause some forms of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Babies born to mothers exposed to PFAS can be exposed during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. The chemicals can also decrease vaccine response in children, the CDC said.

Low levels of the contaminants were detected in 24 Southwest Ohio public water systems, including Areas A and B at Wright-Patt, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which conducted a statewide study in 2020. All but one public water system in the region ― Aullwood Audubon Farm Discovery Center ― were below the federal recommended level of 70 parts per trillion.

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