Lawmakers work for water contamination funds, Impact Aid

Two lawmakers in Washington, D.C. fought to get millions of extra dollars authorized for programs that may directly affect Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantrell (D-Wa) and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Arlington) worked in their respective chambers on the National Defense Authorization Act, the wide-ranging bill that sets the budget and expenditures for the Department of Defense.

They were able to get an increase in the amount of money — an additional $62 million — authorized to help the military address fire-suppression-related groundwater contamination in areas like Coupeville and Oak Harbor.

In addition, Larsen was successful in getting increased authorization of Impact Aid paid to school districts, like Oak Harbor; the program provides funding to schools that educate service members’ children but have reduced property tax revenues because of a military installation. Larsen’s amendment increased Impact Aid authority from $30 million to $50 million.

Oak Harbor Schools Communication Officer Conor Laffey, however, points out that the defense spending bill is what determines the amount that would actually go to schools. Without the amount in the spending bill, he said, it is just a hollow authorization.

Nevertheless, district officials are thankful for the efforts and excited about the prospects, he said.

Impact Aid is a fickle beast. Over the last five years, the actual appropriation for the program ranged from $25 million in 2015 to $40 million in 2012 and 2014.

According to Laffey, the amount the district received during those years ranged from $250,000 to $450,000. Because of its unpredictability, the district places Impact Aid in the capital projects fund in the budget.

“For the last four years, this money has helped to cover a portion of the costs of the nearly $4 million we spent on portables and facilities to serve the additional 600 full-time students in our schools,” he wrote in a statement.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate each passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Larsen pushed the members give the Navy the resources to address groundwater contamination resulting from the use of fire suppressants, his office explained. The House bill included an additional $30 million each for the Navy and Air Force.

In the Senate version of the bill, Cantwell worked with Senator John McCain and the Armed Services Committee to include an additional $62 million for water remediation and environmental restoration for both the Navy and the Air Force, her office explained.

Once both versions of the bill passed, the conference committee of House and Senate members reconciled hundreds of differences between the two bills into final legislation. Larsen, who attended the conference, was successful in advocating for the higher budget authority for environmental restoration in the final version of the bill.

The chemicals at issue are called perfluoroalkyl substances and are considered “emerging contaminants” because they may affect human health or the environment. They haven’t been commonly monitored in the past.

In communities near bases around the country, including NAS Whidbey Island, the Navy has been testing wells to check the levels of two chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid. The chemicals are present in a firefighting foam used to put out aircraft fires.

Wells in a radius of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field Base and Outlying Field Coupeville were tested. As of July 21, 2017, the Navy tested 219 samples and found 10 results are above the EPA lifetime health advisory level established for the chemicals.

The Navy received 113 results from properties near OLF Coupeville and seven drinking well results are above the health advisory level.

The Navy is providing the homes affected with clean drinking water, but a long-term solution hasn’t been determined.

In a statement, NAS Whidbey officials said identifying and eliminating drinking water exposure is a top Navy priority.

“We have proactively worked with the local community and Representative Larsen to address this challenging issue, and we will continue to do so,” the statement says.

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