Dayton intends to sue Wright-Patt, says it wants to stop water contamination

The city of Dayton intends to file a lawsuit against Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Defense in what it says is an effort to address a group of so-called “forever chemicals” coming from the base into the city’s drinking water supply.

Several hotspots exist on the base of the chemicals known as PFAS, and failure to act now will cost millions of dollars, the city said in a news release Monday. The city didn’t answer additional questions from the Dayton Daily News by deadline.

Wright-Patt issued a press release late Monday in response to the city’s pending lawsuit, saying, in part: “Upfront, know that WPAFB is following all environmental clean-up laws, is taking an aggressive approach to (PFAS) remedial activities, has an existing Defense State Memorandum of Agreement in place with Ohio EPA and continues to work collaboratively with Ohio and the city of Dayton concerning PFOS/PFOA related issues.”

Dayton officials recently sent a formal letter to Wright-Patt and the DoD, informing them of its intent to file the lawsuit within 60 days, as required by law, the release said. If both parties do not enter into an agreement with Dayton to mitigate per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances ― or PFAS ― from flowing into the Mad River wellfield, an individual or combined lawsuit will be filed under the environmental statutes and the Federal Tort Claims Act no later than May 4, 2021.

“The city absolutely does not want to file this lawsuit,” City Manager Shelly Dickstein said in the news release. “This is a last resort designed to spur action in the next 60 days to protect the region’s drinking water and hopefully avoid the need to file the suit.”

The Mad River wellfield is one of several that Dayton uses to supply drinking water to more than 400,000 customers in Dayton and Montgomery County.

Dayton previously sued companies that manufactured PFAS products, including firefighting foam, and that case is ongoing.

PFAS 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.

A part per trillion is the equivalent of a grain of sand in an Olympic-size pool or a pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips.

Dayton spent more than four years trying to get Wright-Patt and the DoD to mitigate the ongoing contamination coming from the base to the wellfields and Buried Valley Aquifer, where the majority of communities in the region get their drinking water supply. Base and DoD officials declined an arrangement ― known as a tolling agreement ― that will allow continued cooperative work on the contamination problem while extending the time the city has to file a lawsuit under federal law, the city manager said.

The city says the lawsuit would be aimed at enforcing environmental laws and obtaining an order compelling Wright-Patt and the DoD to:

  • Stop the contaminants from entering the city’s well field.
  • Remediate the current contamination.
  • Reimburse the city for damages and costs incurred to monitor contamination and reduce impacts on the city’s wells and water supply.

Base officials have known that there’s a substantial amount of the contaminants at more than two dozen areas of the property, the city’s news release says, and the toxins have flowed into Dayton’s wellfield above the U.S. EPA’s recommended action level. City officials have also met with Wright-Patt representatives several times over the years, and they’ve exchanged data and proposed mitigation steps, according to the news release.

Base officials have said they need an additional four or more years to study the problem before committing to address the issue, the city’s news release says.

The city’s water remains safe to drink, but Wright-Patt must take action quickly to address the hotspots and other contaminated areas, the city said in its news release.

“If these hot spots reach groundwater, we risk losing the entire Mad River Wellfield, and the result would be treatment and operational costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars to provide an alternative supply of drinking water,” said Michael Powell, director of the city’s Department of Water. “Taking immediate action now to prevent or drastically reduce further contamination will cost far less for everyone involved.”

Drinking water is one of the Dayton region’s biggest assets, and maintaining its high quality continues to be a top priority for the area, said Shannon Joyce Neal of the Dayton Development Coalition. The city and Wright-Patt have been working together for several years, and while the DDC understands the need for the city to take this step, it hopes both parties can reach a resolution.

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