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SLO Airport area residents demand cleanup of 'forever chemicals' in groundwater 

More than 40 people packed a meeting room near the San Luis Obispo County Airport on May 22 to ask a panel of county officials for one thing: clean water.

"Forever chemicals" known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been detected at high levels in the groundwater near the SLO Airport, impacting dozens of residential wells and properties in the area.

click to enlarge POLLUTED Hydrogeologist Jon Rohrer shows SLO Airport area residents where the "forever chemical" PFAS most impacted residential groundwater. - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • POLLUTED Hydrogeologist Jon Rohrer shows SLO Airport area residents where the "forever chemical" PFAS most impacted residential groundwater.

State regulators say that the pollution stems from firefighter trainings held annually at the airport since the mid-1970s, where a PFAS-rich foam called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) was discharged into the environment.

"I would like a show of hands on how many people feel that because 100 percent of our water has been contaminated, we'll not settle unless 100 percent of our water is going to be clean again," landowner Paul Rys said, which sent a sea of hands into the air.

SLO County organized the May 22 meeting as a way to communicate with affected residents about its ongoing negotiations with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board about the PFAS pollution.

In 2019, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered 30 airports statewide, including SLO's, to investigate the presence of PFAS in soil and groundwater.

After three years of testing and analysis, the PFAS levels at the SLO Airport proved to be among the highest in the state.

"We have one of the highest levels of PFAS," nearby resident Kathy Borland said about her residential well. "They are in the sky so high."

PFAS—a class of chemicals under growing state and federal scrutiny—are present in numerous household products and are known to repel water, oil, stains, and sticking. When ingested at high levels, PFAS can increase the risk of kidney cancer, birth defects, and other health issues.

"Almost all Americans have some level of PFAS in our bloodstreams," SLO County Deputy Health Officer Rick Rosen said at the meeting, "just because it's been in so many household appliances for many years. It's true that it's known as a forever chemical."

In February, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a draft cleanup order to the county and Cal Fire for the PFAS pollution. SLO County and Cal Fire pushed back on the order, objecting to its legality since neither the state nor federal government has established legal limits for the chemicals.

On top of that, according to SLO Airport Director Courtney Johnson, the Federal Aviation Administration required airports to use AFFF foams and undergo yearly trainings to prepare for a plane crash.

"[I'm] not punting by any stretch, but as most of you know, we are being required to use this foam by the FAA," Johnson said. "It's not something we want to do, it's something we're mandated to do."

According to Johnson, the county is getting close to reaching a voluntary settlement with the Central Coast water board over the PFAS. Details were sparse, but she said she anticipated the settlement would be made public in June or July.

"It has great promise," Johnson said.

But her assurances didn't quell many residents' fears at the meeting. Property owners called on the county to immediately install granular activated carbon filters at their wellheads to clean up their groundwater. Many pointed out that drinking water-only filters were insufficient.

"All we're doing by fixing drinking water is all [the rest of] our water is going into our septic tanks, and all that is going right back into the ground," Borland said.

Rys echoed that and added that the PFAS pollution impacts crops and livestock, too.

"We have the right to live in a safe environment to be able to grow food, have our animals outside, interact with the soil, and have clean water with no anxiety later," he said. "Something under the tap is going to keep us all in high anxiety."

In a presentation about the extent of the PFAS pollution, county-contracted hydrologist Jon Rohrer said that many of the properties he tested already had water filters installed, which likely reduced the amount of PFAS residents ingested.

"Although certainly there is something that needs to be taken care of here, the good news is that in the short term it looked like not a lot of people were drinking the PFAS above those response levels," Rohrer said.

Third District SLO County Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg, who led the May 22 meeting, wrapped up by encouraging residents to join her in lobbying state and federal officials to provide funding for what's expected to be an expensive cleanup.

"We want them to understand the situation we find ourselves in," Ortiz-Legg said. "We're mandated to do one thing, and yet we're finding out these potential implications. The whole idea of PFAS and fire retardant was for safety. And yet, we find ourselves feeling very unsafe at this point." Δ

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

View Results

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