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Water is delivered to homes at Plainsview Mobile Manor on Dec. 13.

Every Thursday morning, a bright red Coca-Cola truck circulates through Plainsview Mobile Manor and nearby developments to deliver cases of Dasani water bottles or five-gallon jugs to homes with PFAS-contaminated water.

Simultaneously, the base is exploring more economical short-term solutions like installing reverse osmosis or granulated active carbon filtering systems in people’s homes or directly outside their wells. But the likely long-term solution, it appears, is hooking homes into Box Elder’s municipal water system.

At a Nov. 1, 2018, informational meeting held by base officials, Brian Howard of the Air Force Civil Engineering Center said that if connecting homes into the city system is the agreed-upon solution, homeowners should not expect the base to cover their water bills.

“If we hook you up to public water, we pay for the tie-in and, I’m sorry to say, the water bill then is going to be yours to take care of,” Howard said. “That’s what my lawyers tell me.”

Since that statement, some have wondered what makes the current PFAS situation different than in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the base agreed to hook people into the city and base water systems and provide free water due to base-caused contamination of private wells with Trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial cleaner and degreaser used to clean missiles. Per Air Force documents, the base agreed to provide free water until the the contamination was remediated to Environmental Protection Agency standards. 

The base currently foots the monthly municipal water bills for 56 properties east of the base, while free water from the base’s system, sourced from Pactola Reservoir, is also routed to 19 properties south and southwest of the base.

“The Air Force’s response to TCE contamination differs from its response to PFOS and PFOA,” the base said in a written statement to the Journal. “One reason is that under the federal environmental cleanup law that applies in both cases, TCE is a hazardous substance and PFOS and PFOA are not hazardous substances.”

Howard was blunter.

“We can’t be a purveyor of water to the public,” he said Nov. 1. “I think it will be rectified one of these days and those people [receiving free water due to TCE contamination] will probably be taken off that water as well. The Air Force and U.S. government, we’re not in the position to be purveyors of water. That’s just not our mission.”

It appears that residents who didn’t have water bills prior to PFAS contamination may someday soon.

“They’re not in the business of giving water,” said Sandy Clary, 68, who lives in a home with PFAS-contaminated water, echoing Howard’s statement a little over a month after the meeting. “Just destroying water,” her husband, Richard Clary, added.

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Contact Samuel Blackstone at samuel.blackstone@rapidcityjournal.com and follow him on Twitter or Facebook @SDBlackstone.

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City Reporter

City reporter for the Rapid City Journal.