A NextGen Blog post by Rachel Rebello, Rutgers University, 2019.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

ABOUT RACHEL REBELLO:  Graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, Rachel is currently pursuing a career in environmental law. This 2-part post on PFAS in a critical West Coast watershed is Rachel’s final NWNL investigation of PFAS in US waters. Her first post looks at the East Coast’s struggles with PFAS in NJ’s Raritan River Basin; and her next post focuses on the Midwest by addressing PFAS in the Mississippi River Basin.

For centuries, the Columbia River has been an important part of life in the United States. Despite its immense environmental, economic and cultural significance, the river is beset by many universal challenges – from rising water temperatures to plastic pollution. Today, the Columbia River faces a new challenge: PFAS contamination.

Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, courtesy of Nicole Bratt.

What are PFAS?

Produced in the 1940s, PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are comprised of over 4,700 chemicals favored for their unique non-stick properties. They are used in various products including pans, food packaging, and fire-fighting foam. Manufactured by several companies (notably 3M) and used by the military, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are the two most studied chemicals in this class of PFAS. These chemicals have been linked to an increased risk for cancer; immunological hormonal impacts; and raised cholesterol levels.1United States Environmental Protection Agency Over the course of 80 years, PFAS have accumulated in our soil, rivers and in 99% of Americans.2Environmental Working Group

In the Pacific Northwest, the fight against PFAS is the fight to protect the Columbia River.

Map of the Columbia River, courtesy of Creative Commons.

The Columbia River Basin

Beginning in Canada, and touching seven U.S. states, the Columbia River runs about 1,200 miles before reaching the Pacific Ocean. A unique breeding ground to many species from bears to migratory warblers, the basin is home to 61 different fish species and host to massive salmon migrations.3Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Over 14 Native American tribes reside in the basin, their lives intertwined with the river.4Hobaish, Millie For cities and numerous municipalities, the Columbia River is an important source of power. Roughly 274 hydroelectric dams supply enough electricity to meet the yearly demands of 7,998,240 homes. In the agricultural sector, the river irrigates over 5.1 million acres of farmland.5Northwest Power and Conservation Council With so many people, animals and industries deeply connected to the Columbia River, understanding the extent of PFAS contamination is key to securing the livelihood of future generations.

The Columbia River as it heads to Portland International Airport, courtesy of Adam Hill.

PFAS sites along the Columbia River

As shown on the EWG Interactive PFAS Map, military bases and airports make up the majority of PFAS contamination sites along the Columbia River.  These sites conduct fire-fighting exercises using PFAS containing AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam). In particular, there are two sites in Oregon within five miles of the river’s main stem worth examining. Portland International Airport and Camp Rilea in Clatsop County, have tested positive for PFAS as of 2019.6Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University Because of their close proximity to the Columbia River, these facilities are prime suspects for contamination of the river.

According to the Environmental Working Group, groundwater well samples at Camp Rilea contained at least five types of PFAS, with maximum PFOA levels of 0.7 ppt. Portland International Airport showed detectable levels of at least six PFAS in groundwater, with maximum PFOA levels of 24,000 ppt and PFOS levels at 42,000 ppt. Two additional sites close to Portland International Airport – the Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau training facility and Portland Air National Guard Base – have also been cited for PFAS contamination.7Schick, Tony

Portland International Airport beside the Columbia River, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Within the entire Columbia River Basin, there are at least 10 additional military sites with detectable PFAS based on the EWG contamination map. Another notable contamination area includes Fairchild Air-force Base in Washington State which tested positive for 16 types of PFAS. PFOA and PFOS groundwater levels of 22,000 ppt and 150,000 ppt respectively were detected according to the Air Force Administrative Record. Contamination, even where minimal, can be hazardous. Even 7-10 parts per trillion of PFAS in drinking water may be unsafe according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).8Reade, Anne

A major concern regarding PFAS is that they do not break down in the environment and can accumulate to high concentrations in fish. Thus, PFAS pose great risks to both animal and human communities. According to a review by the Department of Defense, many AFFF products contain additional PFAS not detected by the older EPA method for testing drinking-water. This means that while PFOS and PFOA levels may be monitored, other long-chain PFAS may pass undetected.9Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Capitol, courtesy of Cory Barnes.

Part Two will be published on September 9, 2020 and take a deeper look into how local governments and Indigenous Tribe’s are addressing the PFAS crisis in the Columbia River Basin.


Basic Information on PFAS. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mar 3rd, 2016. Accessed Dec 11th, 2019 by RR.

Columbia River: Description, Creation, and Discovery. Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Accessed June 25th, by RR.

Columbia River Fish Species. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Accessed June 25th, 2020 by RR.

‘Forever Chemicals’: Teflon, Scotchguard and the PFAS Contamination Crisis. Environmental Working Group. Accessed Feb 5th, 2020 by RR.

Hobaish, Millie. Tribes of the Columbia River System. Confluence Project, Oct 10th, 2019. Accessed June 25th, 2020 by RR.

Interim Chemical Action Plan for Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances. Washington State Dept. Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, Jan 2019. Accessed July 20th, 2020 by RR.

PFAS Contamination in the U.S. Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, Jul 20th, 2020. Accessed Jul 24th, 2020 by RR.

Reade, Anne. CDC Report on PFASs: A Good Start But Improvements Needed. National Resource Defense Council, Aug 21, 2018. Accessed July 20th, 2020 by RR.

Schick, Tony. Firefighting Foam Contaminated Northeast Portland Groundwater. Oregon Public Broadcasting, Feb 27th, 2019. Accessed Jul 24th, 2020 by RR.

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