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Cleaning up Ellsworth a costly effort
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Cleaning up Ellsworth a costly effort

From the JOURNAL SPECIAL REPORT: The toxic legacy of firefighting foam series

Walk along Ellsworth Air Force base's east and south boundary knocking on doors and one quickly realizes PFAS contamination is a new chapter in an old book.

Past contamination from chemicals like Trichloroethylene (TCE) — an industrial cleaner and degreaser used to clean missiles — means the Air Force already foots the monthly water bills for 56 properties east of the base. Free water from the base’s system, sourced from Pactola Reservoir, is also routed to 19 properties south and southwest of the base. PFAS contamination added two more properties to the list.

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Cleanup efforts at Ellsworth cost the Air Force $61 million from 1995 to 2005, according to Journal archives. Most of that is due to TCEs, but other contaminants include jet fuel, lubricants, low-level nuclear waste and a small amount of mustard gas agent. Almost all of that pollution occurred between 1942 and the early 1970s.

In 1970, Air Force bases began using the PFAS-laden firefighting foam. According to a 391-page report on Ellsworth’s contamination, firefighting training with foam occurred in an unlined pit southwest of the runway until 1990. Other waste materials, including solvents, oils, aviation fuels and jet propellant, were burned in the unlined pit. In 1990, the base built a new lined pit just north of the old site but still in the base’s southwest quadrant.

Base officials didn’t keep records of foam use until 2002, but the base estimates it started using foam for training and firefighting around 1970. In early 2016, the base ceased foam training and testing before an Air Force directive allowed it again this year within Ellsworth’s training pit. The ban on foam testing and training with fire truck and hangar systems remains in effect.

Current testing for soil, surface and groundwater contamination has focused on the former and current training areas near the base’s southern boundary, as well as off-base properties immediately south and southwest of that area.

Contact Samuel Blackstone at and follow him on Twitter or Facebook @SDBlackstone.

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