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Tucson is getting federal funding to help treat PFAS contamination

Tucson’s water supply is partially reliant on the massive underground aquifer below it. But that aquifer has been under threat because of various contaminants that have seeped in. Now the city is getting federal funding to help. 

Tucson has dealt with a  number of water contaminants over the years — including PFAS. The human made chemicals have been linked to health issues like cancer.

Cleanup and testing for the PFAS is expensive. And while the is in the process of  placing formal limits on some of them — they haven’t been cemented yet. 

Tucson Water Director John Kmiec says PFAS have been found in high concentrations here.

"So we’ve shut down, over a number of years, seven wells of the Tucson water system on the northwest side," he said. 

→  PFAS water contamination is in the national spotlight. In Tucson, it's the latest in a longer legacy

All told, water officials have been forced to shut down more than two dozen wells because of PFAS and other contaminants. 

Kmiec says Tucson is getting a $30 million loan through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The money will be used to build a new water treatment facility for the northwest side and, eventually, reopen the wells. 

PFAS are used in a range of industrial and consumer projects, including Aqueous Film-forming Foam, known as AFFF, a special firefighting foam used for years at airports and airbases, including in Tucson.

City water officials believe the contamination showing up now was caused by the use of AFFF. Earlier this year, state and federal environmental regulators started asking the facilities what they were doing to test for and mitigate contamination.

Now, Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA are requesting information from the Tucson airport about how it’s addressing the contamination. The city of Tucson is also asking for reimbursement for some of the roughly $50 million its spent on water treatment.

In a response letter to the agencies, authorities at the Tucson airport say the facility is finalizing plans to begin PFAS testing of soil and water around the facility — but haven’t started yet. A spokesperson said the facility is reviewing Tucson's requests for reimbursement and is in the process of phasing out AFFF, which is still used for training and emergency purposes. 

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.