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Nike missile-type pollution found in Hutterite wells near Spokane

Jun 1, 2006 | AP

Pollution has been found in 19 water wells on property owned by Hutterite families in the Deep Creek area, and environmental experts say the source appears to be a Cold War-era missile battery.

Three toxic chemicals have been found in the wells west of Spokane near Riverside State Park, one a common military engine degreaser and the other two typically found in rockets such as those in Nike anti-aircraft guided missiles, Environmental Protection Agency officials said.

"The combination of these three chemicals is fairly unique," an EPA remedial project manager, Harry Craig, told The Spokesman-Review. "The only places that I've seen that is at rocket motor facilities" in California and at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado.

The agency reported the findings May 16 to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the cleanup of military pollution. Corps spokesman Steve Cosgrove told the newspaper Wednesday a decision on cleanup is likely months away.

"The sample areas EPA is looking at are quite a ways away (from the Nike site) and scattered around," Cosgrove added. "At this point we don't have sufficient information."

The degreaser could have come from the cleaning of agricultural machinery and the other chemicals from fertilizer, he said.

Craig, however, countered that it was unlikely at least two of the chemicals would have been used in agriculture in dryland farming of the kind practiced by Hutterites, a deeply religious people who live a communal lifestyle with some modern conveniences. Hutterite beliefs stem from the same Anabaptist origins as those of the Amish and Mennonites.

Nike missiles were installed in the mid-1950s as the last line of defense against a potential bomber attack on targets such as Fairchild Air Force Base, also west of Spokane, or the Hanford nuclear reservation north of the Tri-Cities in southcentral Washington.

As the bomber threat subsided with the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Nikes were removed by 1966.

The installation at Deep Creek, in an alignment typical for the Nike, included a launch area where the missiles were kept in underground magazine, and a control and firing center with radar and computer systems within 3 1/2 miles.

EPA began testing two years ago at a well once owned by the military between the two sites, and results released last year showed the presence of trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent linked to liver, kidney and lung cancer.

Subsequent testing found perchlorate, a salt used as a primary ingredient in solid rocket fuel, in nearby 19 wells, including five in which investigators also found N-nitrosodimethylamine, or NDMA, an igniter for rocket fuel, and two with TCE.

TCE levels were as high as 210 parts per billion, compared with EPA's "maximum contaminate level" of 5 parts per billion.

NDMA, considered much more toxic and suspected of causing cancer, was found at levels as high as 2.6 parts per trillion. EPA has not established a maximum level considered safe for NDMA, but the agency has set a tentative cleanup goal of 1.3 parts per trillion.

Perchlorate, which can disrupt thyroid function and the central nervous systems of fetuses and infants and also is suspected in some forms of cancer, registered up to 2.1 parts per billion, below the preliminary remediation goal of 3.6 parts per billion.

Mike LaScuola, a Spokane Regional Health District environmental health specialist who was assigned to discuss the findings with the affected families, said the long-term health risks appear to be low at those levels.

"What we are trying to tell folks is, `We found this in your water. We don't know how long it's been there. It's not an immediate health risk," LaScuola said.

Even so, filter systems have been installed at wells contaminated with TCE, said Renee Dagseth, an EPA community involvement coordinator.

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