Popular well at Dillingham Catholic church closed due to PFAS contamination

Jan 18, 2019

Chemicals used in firefighting foam have leached into the popular well at Dillingham’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation determined Thursday that the water is unsafe to drink.

The Holy Rosary Catholic Church's well is located at the parish house.
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

The Alaska Department of Environtmental Conservation has identified groundwater contamination from PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) at a Dillingham well. The chemicals are used in firefighting foams, and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities presumes the contamination is a result of testing firefighting equipment at the Dillingham Airport.

A DEC test of the popular well at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church showed PFAS in the water at a level of 186 parts per trillion. The health advisory level established by the EPA is 70 ppt.

The well is located at the parish house, and the priest, Fr. Scott Garrett is the water technician. He said that the State of Alaska alerted him to the situation on Thursday. He has boarded up the button that operates the pump and posted signs alerting patrons that the well is closed.

Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

In Dillingham, the city’s water system is limited to the downtown area, and the rust and sulfur content in private wells varies widely. Holy Rosary has operated its well since the 1970s, and it has established a strong reputation locally as quality drinking water.

Garrett estimates that hundreds of people and businesses rely on the church’s well for drinking water during the winter. During the summer fishing season, he said that “probably a thousand” people utilize it.

Mike Carty has been using the church’s water at his home for about 15 years. When he drove to the parish house to fill his water containers on Friday, Garrett greeted him with the news.

“We had to shut the water down. It got contaminated by the airport,” said Garrett.

“Oh shucks,” Carty replied. “Gosh darn those guys.”

Then Carty explained, “I don’t have running water, so I get running water here like two three times a week. I’ll go through maybe a gallon, two gallons a day. You know I’ve got a couple of dogs, so I’ve got to give them water all the time. It’s one of the really nicest aquifers that this well is on. The water is really clean.”

The state has worked closely with the City of Dillingham to establish a temporary, alternative water source for people who use the church well. People can fill their water containers at a spigot on the north side of the Dillingham Senior Center. The hours for the spigot are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In the coming weeks, DOT & PF will strategically test more wells near the airport. When they tested Holy Rosary’s well they also tested eight others that showed PFAS levels of no more than 22 parts per trillion.

Fr. Scott Garrett is priest of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church and the technician for its well.
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

“We work with an independent third party, Shannon & Wilson, Inc,” said Meadow Bailey, DOT & PF spokesperson. “They are the environmental firm that comes in, and they do extensive testing around the property where there has been some positive indications of PFAS.”

The health effects of long-term exposure to PFAS are not yet well defined. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, communities highly exposed to PFAS have shown that the chemicals could damage many systems in the human body, including the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems.

Both the DOT & PF and the DEC declined to give recommendations on whether people who use private wells near the airport should continue to use that water before more extensive testing has been conducted.

The state is exploring a permanent solution to the problem, which could include installing a water filter at Holy Rosary.

Groundwater contamination from PFAS at airports has been found at several other communities in Alaska, including Fairbanks and Gustavus. DEC is currently evaluating past and present airports and Department of Defense sites statewide.

Contact the author at avery@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Correction: This story originally stated Dillingham "is now the third city in Alaska where the Department of Environmental Conservation has identified groundwater contamination." In fact, ADEC is also involved in PFAS response at Utqiagvik, Eareckson Air Station on Shemya, North Pole and Moose Creek. Dillingham is the third Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities PFAS site.