Extent of Ellsworth groundwater pollution unknown

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BOX ELDER, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- Chemicals used to fight fires on Ellsworth Air Force Base since the 1970s have polluted the water in at least nine nearby wells -- and the Air Force doesn't yet know how widespread the danger is.

In 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency established safe levels for two compounds -- PFOS and PFOA -- found in widely used fire fighting foam.

The Air Force quickly phased out the chemicals. But now the compounds -- that the EPA says can cause cancer and other maladies -- are showing up in nearby wells. Nine private drinking water wells near the base tested above the EPA safe levels. Most are single family wells but the bulk of the people affected by the ground water contamination live in a single mobile home park called Plainsview Mobile Manor.

Last week the Air Force started deliveries of bottled water to a total of about 90 residences. Plainsview say they welcome the Air Force's efforts but weren't surprised when they learned of the new threat to their water.

"Since I've lived here we've had bad water," said William Branum. "We can't drink it since the day I moved in in 1996."

The water deliveries are a stopgap measure until a permanent solution can be engineered.

"The Air Force is committed to mitigating drinking water impacts to the public in Box Elder and surrounding communities around Ellsworth Air Force base," said EAFB Restoration Program Manager Melody Jensen.

Possible long term solutions include hooking the residents up to a municipal water system or installing filters at each home or well. But before that, the Air Force needs to determine the extent of the pollution.

"Based on the results of our first drinking water well survey we will be expanding our survey area," said Jensen. "Our next locations we will be looking at are south of Box Elder Creek and west of West Gate Road out in the Ashland Heights area."

The next wave of water test will likely be conducted in November.