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‘Forever chemicals’ confirmed at multiple North Valleys locations: What we know 


About this report: The City of Reno provided the results of water and soil samples to This Is Reno that reveal high numbers of PFAS in and around Swan Lake. Further context was only provided days later. A number of readers reached out both with interpretations of the data as well as concerns. The city data raise more questions than answers, but they point toward potential public health concerns for those who get drinking water from wells in the Lemmon Valley area. Possible source locations of contamination are also identified.

The presence of PFAS – known as “forever chemicals” because they are slow to break down in the environment – in and around Swan Lake in the North Valleys has been confirmed in soil, groundwater and surface water samples.

The data were provided to This Is Reno from the city of Reno. John Flansberg with the city, said the confirmation of PFAS contamination raises more questions than answers. 

“PFAS is basically everywhere,” he said, adding that more investigation is needed. “I guess I’m like a lot of other wastewater professionals around the nation … trying to really understand what these [test results] mean.”

High numbers of PFAS chemicals – which are found in consumer goods such as cleaning products and cosmetics – were found in Swan Lake at levels that would exceed proposed limits by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water.

But Swan Lake is not a source of drinking water, nor is it recommended for recreation. No PFAS has been detected in Truckee Meadows Water Authority-provided water.

“When we talk about the EPA standards, those standards are strictly for drinking water,” Flansberg added. “So far all of the drinking water samples have been non-detects. We know that the drinking water is safe.”

PFAS confirmed in soil and water needs to be investigated further, particularly for possible private well-water contamination, sources said. 

“The groundwater below the fire training academy is very contaminated.”

“The greater concern is those groundwater wells,” a source who has expertise in environmental science and PFAS said. “I’m not 100% sure where the discharge from the [Lemmon Valley Water Reclamation Facility] goes, but that’s going to accumulate over time and potentially affect drinking water source wells.” 

Another scientist agreed possible well-water contamination is concerning. The Lemmon Valley hydrogeographic basin in 2015 had more than 1,800 domestic water wells. During the 2017 flooding, Washoe County offered water quality test kits to residents to determine possible contamination. Drinking water was also delivered.

“I would want to know. I would get my water tested [for PFAS],” the researcher added. “Unfortunately, it’s $500 a sample to test it.”

Washoe County Health District spokesperson Scott Oxarart said the county has no plans to provide domestic well tests “at this time. Any resident with questions or concerns about a domestic well or septic in Washoe County can contact us at 775-328-2434.”

Low amounts of PFAS were found in groundwater, and PFAS found in soil in the North Valleys were at levels consistent with other urban areas, the researcher explained.

“Some are high, some are pretty normal for an urban area,” he told This Is Reno.

Flood waters in Lemmon Valley. Image: Washoe County.
Flood waters in Lemmon Valley. Image: Washoe County.

PFAS contamination near the Reno-Stead Airport was also documented by a consultant for the Army National Guard in 2020. The report noted that nearby domestic wells had the potential for PFAS contamination. 

“There are no drinking water wells located at the facility; therefore, groundwater is an incomplete pathway to site workers, construction workers, and trespassers,” the report notes. “However, there is the potential for exposure to PFAS contamination migrating from … groundwater via ingestion for off-facility residents using private domestic and public wells.”

The source of PFAS at the Guard’s facility, the report found, was from fire training areas and “potential offsite facility.”

Potential sources identified

PFAS are water soluble and migrate in soil and water. Samples taken by a team at the University of Nevada, Reno were from a single location at Swan Lake. Those data were reported at a conference in March by University of Nevada, Reno professor David Hanigan and Michael DeNicola, a hydrology graduate student.

The discovery of PFAS at Swan Lakeprompted area government officials to inform the public. They announced the contamination at a press conference in April, and further tests were conducted. Those test results confirmed the initial UNR findings.

Much about North Valleys PFAS contamination remains unknown though, a point echoed not only by Flansberg, but also by experts consulted for this story.

The test results provided by the city suggest two potential sources for the contamination. High levels were found at the former University of Nevada, Reno fire training facility and the nearby Horse Creek. 

UNR’s Dodd/Beals Firefighting Academy, established in 1972, ended up a contaminated Brownfields site that went through environmental remediation in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. UNR applied for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s Brownfields program for environmental remediation.

“The Dodd/Beals Firefighting Academy was located on 77 acres of land donated to the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) by the Stead Air Force Base, and operated from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s,” the NPEP Brownfields document shows. “42 acres were used for administrative buildings and firefighting training facilities, including mock buildings on concrete pads that were ignited and extinguished for practice.”

The site is now where the Makita warehouse is located.

The environmental cleanup “was remediated consistent with industrial [and] residential use,” the state concluded in the mid-2000s. It is unlikely PFAS was part of the remediation since remediating forever chemicals remains in its infancy, according to a 2019 report by the EPA.

“The groundwater below the fire training academy is very contaminated,” a researcher, looking at the city data, told This Is Reno. “The fire training academy tends to be the highest concentrations that were found in any of the samples, both soil and groundwater.”

Flansberg agreed those locations had high levels of PFAS.

“It’s pretty well known what the firefighting foam was used for, for fighting the fires [and] that contained [PFAS],” he said. “Based on what the use of that facility was, it’s not surprising that we’d see that, but now we actually have the data.”

Another location with a high number of PFAS, however, is a creek that drains into Swan Lake. The high level of PFAS at Horse Creek has officials puzzled.

“We need to know more information about what source that may be coming from,” Flansberg said.

Multiple class actions lawsuits over PFAS

Washoe County commissioners on Tuesday will consider joining in litigation for damages from manufacturers of firefighting foam. That litigation is unrelated to the North Valleys PFAS contamination, but the litigation could help further investigate PFAS in Washoe County.

“The … products, manufactured by these Defendants, were initially designed to deal with potentially catastrophic fires aboard military aircraft carriers and were subsequently widely used on military bases, airports, and in firefighter training programs,” a Washoe County staff report notes. “Many other state and local municipalities are seeking recovery based on the harmful effect of PFAS to human health and the environment.

“If retained, outside counsel would engage experts, at outside counsel’s sole expense, to investigate the existence and proliferation of PFAS in Washoe County…”

More than 6,400 lawsuits related to PFAS have been filed, according to reporting by Forbes. One government suing PFAS manufacturers is Washington State.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the litigation in late May. 

“The lawsuit asserts these companies knew for decades about the serious risks these chemicals posed to humans and the environment,” he said in a media statement. “The companies likely made many millions in profit while actively deceiving the public.”

He alleged companies 3M and Dupont knew the risks of PFAS as far back as the 1980s, if not earlier.

“PFAS from firefighting foam has contaminated groundwater used for drinking in multiple Washington communities, rendering some undrinkable and requiring significant treatment measures at others,” Ferguson continued.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.