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Ducey sends $2M to Tucson to restart water plant shut by military pollution

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Ducey sends $2M to Tucson to restart water plant shut by military pollution

Ducey, city leaders criticize Defense Department's handling of PFAS plume, demand funding for cleanup

  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey during a press conference in Nogales, Arizona on June 16, 2021.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comArizona Gov. Doug Ducey during a press conference in Nogales, Arizona on June 16, 2021.

The state of Arizona will provide $2 million to help Tucson Water restart a treatment plant shut down because of severe groundwater contamination near the Tucson International Airport from firefighting foam used by the military.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the office of Gov. Doug Ducey will provide  the funding, officials announced Monday.

Earlier this month, Tucson officials, including Mayor Regina Romero, decided to halt operations at the water plant as a precaution after tests showed increasingly high-levels of PFAS — a chemical that was once used in firefighting foam — moving in a plume toward the Tucson Airport Remediation Project, a water treatment effort designed to mitigate the presence of other chemicals, including the industrial solvent known as trichloroethene, or TCE. 

The funding will fast-track efforts to bring TARP back online, and "safely continue treating contaminated groundwater in the area," Ducey's office said in a news release. The state's investment will help Tucson "get the plant back online as quickly as possible, which is critical to meeting the plant’s original mission of containing the decades-old plume" of contaminated groundwater, the governor's office said. 

"Making sure all Arizonans receive safe and clean drinking water remains a top priority of our state," said Ducey. "This funding will help Tucson Water bring an important water treatment facility back online and secure Tucson’s water supply for future generations. Every source of water in Arizona is critical as we face drought conditions and the risk of a drier future." 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, remain in groundwater near several military bases and airports in the state, including the Arizona Air National Guard facility at the Tucson International Airport as well as near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

City officials said June 9 that the TARP plant is safe, and that the decision to suspend operations was merely a precaution. The chemical was first detected in TARP groundwater years ago, but levels were low enough then that they could be removed with available treatment, city officials said.

Tucson Water will suspend TARP's operations and construct a temporary pipeline, and later a permanent outfall structure, to send treated water from TARP to the dry riverbed of the Santa Cruz River north of Irvington Road, the governor's office said. ADEQ and Tucson Water are working on an agreement to approve the funding this week. 

"Tucson Water assures the public that contaminated water has not been served to customers from TARP," the governor's office said. "These measures are being pursued to protect public health, and to ensure no contaminants enter the drinking water system in the future."

"City-state partnership has been and will continue to be important to ensure the safety and long-term security of our local water supply," said Mayor Romero. "Tucson’s mayor and Council have already invested millions of local dollars to treat PFAS contamination," she said. "Still, there is an urgent need for the federal government and responsible parties to initiate or provide funding for large-scale PFAS cleanup efforts."

"Tucson Water ratepayers are not responsible for PFAS contamination and should not be left with the bill," Romero said. 

"ADEQ and the state of Arizona join the city of Tucson in our commitment to protect the drinking water supply for all Tucsonans," said ADEQ Director Misael Cabrera. "TARP was not designed to remove PFAS, and Tucson Water has invested millions of dollars to keep the water safe from these compounds. Pursuing alternative end-uses for treated TARP water is a prudent move that will allow the plant to return to service. The $2 million from the state will expedite getting TARP safely back online and prevent the plume of groundwater contamination from spreading outside of the treatment zone," he said. 

The governor's office said that Tucson Water could discharge water to the Santa Cruz, or use the water as part of Tucson's reclaimed water system for landscape irrigation. 

In the release, Tucson Water officials were careful to emphasize that the pipeline does not mean untreated water will be sent into the Santa Cruz River. 

"When TARP reopens, we’ll still be treating this water to a very high standard prior to any discharge to the river." said interim Tucson Water Director John Kmiec. "We will continue our vigilance by monitoring the water quality coming out of TARP every week. What this project does is provide a temporary measure to keep TARP running and keep the TCE plume contained until a long-term solution is developed to address PFAS in this part of our aquifer." 

Last year, ADEQ agreed to spend $3.3 million from the state's Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund to stop PFAS from affecting Tucson's drinking water sources, and ADEQ is working on designing an "early response action" just north of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to protect Tucson Water's central well-field, which the governor's office called a "critical component of the community’s long-term water supply." 

"We continue to call on the federal government to take prompt action to address PFAS contamination in Arizona," Ducey said. "Arizona is acting now to contain the threat of PFAS," he said, adding that the state was pushing Defense Department officials to deal with PFAS contamination of groundwater throughout Arizona."

In April, Ducey sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin calling on the Pentagon to take prompt action to address groundwater contamination near Arizona’s military installations.

At a hearing in June, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that efforts to clean up PFAS contamination should be added to the 2022  National Defense Authorization bill, requiring the DOD's own Environmental Restoration Program to prioritize cleanup of the chemical compounds.

Kelly, along with U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema, joined by U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick and Tom O'Halleran, sent a letter demanding DOD help cleanup the plume. 

In a newsletter Monday, City Councilman Steve Kozachik criticized the Defense Department, writing that even as Tucson was spending "considerable amounts of money to study, test for, and control the spread of PFAS, even while the entities responsible continue to slow-walk the issue.

"The plume is moving faster than the process," Kozachik wrote. 

He also criticized an announcement from the Arizona Air National Guard that said it would take until 2024 to "finish studying the mess they’ve created out by Tucson International Airport." 

"Waiting until 2024 for them to study the issue is simply irresponsible," he said. "Our water utility will be spending millions of dollars during that time on containing and cleaning the pollutants. Yes, we’re keeping track so when the DOD gets around to making us whole, we’ll have records of what our ratepayers are paying to clean up their mess," Kozachik wrote. 

The city of Tucson has filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of PFAS compounds, and "will pursue all of its available legal remedies to obtain reimbursement for all of the city’s — and now ADEQ’s — expenses from these and other potentially responsible parties," the governor said. 

Tucson Water has spent over $8 million to address PFAS locally, the governor's office said, continuing to test all drinking water sources for the compounds across its 390 square mile service area, turning off contaminated wells and drilling new ones in clean areas, and removing PFAS at TARP.

"The utility is spending millions more to make a connection to the reclaimed system," Ducey said. 

Kozachik noted that the amount of water from the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile long diversion canal system that carries Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, will likely be reduced in the next few years because of the dwindling amount of water in Lake Mead. "With the exception of 60,000 residents out on the NW side of town, we are serving our customers Colorado River water," said Kozachik. "It’s our groundwater supply that’s being contaminated with the PFAS." 

"That means we’ll be moving more and more in the direction of relying on our groundwater. That is why we need it cleaned up – now, not in 2024," Kozachik said. 

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