SPOKANE – 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 base.
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 antiaircraft 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 said Wednesday that a decision on cleanup is likely months away.
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, 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 or the Hanford nuclear reservation.
As the threat subsided with the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Nikes were removed; all of them were gone by 1966.
The installation at Deep Creek included a launch area where the missiles were kept in underground magazines, and a control and firing center within 31/2 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.
NDMA is suspected of causing cancer; perchlorate can disrupt thyroid function and the central nervous systems of fetuses and infants and also is suspected in some forms of cancer.
However, 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.