A Fairbanks-area lodge’s lawsuit against Eielson Air Force Base, involving water contamination from airport firefighting foam (AFFF), will be heard in South Carolina as federal courts transfer dozens of similar suits to the same jurisdiction.

Tuesday’s action affecting three lawsuits, by the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, follows its December decision to transfer 75 civil actions involving AFFF contamination to the District of South Carolina. The suits moved Tuesday involve Moose Creek Lodge near Eielson Air Force Base, as well as two matters in eastern Washington. They will be heard by Judge Richard M. Gergel.

“This district is not burdened by many [multi-district litigations] and has the capacity and resources to successfully guide this litigation,” panel officials wrote in the December decision. “More importantly, [Gergel] is an experienced transferee judge who can prudently steer the litigation.”

According to an overview from the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the perfluorinated compounds underlying the problem began to be phased out of firefighting foam by manufacturers including 3M in 2001, due to findings that the chemicals can be harmful. A list of their effects in drinking water indicates a probable link between exposure to some of the compounds and symptoms ranging from liver damage and kidney cancer to decreased fertility and reduced birth weights.

DOTPF, which operates many of the state’s airports, has responded to four communities over concerns regarding the compounds and is working to phase out airport firefighting equipment manufactured before 2015.

“[Perfluorinated compounds] that enter the environment are known to persist for a long time and may travel long distances in groundwater,” state officials wrote.

A timeline posted by Eielson officials indicates that base officials first became aware of the compounds’ presence at Eielson in 2014, when U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors visited the base. An examination of four Eielson sites, amid a larger assessment of Air Force facilities, found perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Contamination of base drinking water was confirmed in 2015 testing requested by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Later in 2015, according to Eielson officials, one of the base’s six drinking-water wells showed 0.35 parts per billion (ppb) of PFOS, exceeding advisory levels of 0.2 ppb. The base switched water supplies and ordered granular activated carbon filters, also tightening its tolerances for PFAS and PFOS to 0.07 ppb each. A July 2016 reading showed a combined total of 0.10 ppb, prompting another switch in water supplies and improved filtration.

A November 2018 lawsuit against the Air Force, filed by the Moose Creek Lodge's operators, cites contamination that was found to have spread beyond the base in 2015. That led to residents being supplied bottled water, costing the lodge about $20,000 in estimated lost business, roughly $6,800 in supplies and further expenses to replace a piece of beverage-service equipment.

“The contaminated water fouled [the lodge’s] soda gun,” attorneys wrote. “The equipment had to be replaced by the Odom Corporation at a cost of $3,541.83. For some unknown reason, plaintiffs were told that Odom Corporation had to make the claim. Odom Corporation did make the claim, and the claim was denied without explanation.”

The lodge’s operators acknowledge Air Force efforts to address the issue, but are seeking to be awarded their costs, as well as at least $100,000 in punitive damages.

Other airports in the state have also been linked to similar water-contamination issues.

In January, state officials asked Dillingham residents to use an alternate drinking water source after a well at the Holy Rosary Church near Dillingham’s airport tested positive for similar compounds. Airport firefighting foam was the “presumed source” of the contamination, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Earlier this month, the compounds became a topic of questioning for EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler when Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked him about the agency's effectiveness in Alaska during a Senate hearing on the agency's budget.

Janis Harper contributed information to this story.

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