Air Force works to ease toxic water tensions at Fountain meeting
Author: Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - October 25, 2017 - Updated: October 25, 2017
Peterson Air Force Base bosses worked Tuesday to soothe the Fountain City Council’s frustrations over the base’s role in polluting drinking water for thousands of residents in southern El Paso County.
The meeting came as the Air Force faces mounting pressure from local governments and Congress to address pollution tied to the service’s decadeslong use of a firefighting foam that contained fluoridated compounds.
The chemicals have been tied to health risks from high cholesterol to cancer and brought alarm to the region last year after the Environmental Protection Agency warned water users that the contaminated Widefield Aquifer was unsafe to drink.
“We have two objectives: One is to be as transparent as humanly possible,” Col. Eric Dorminey, vice commander of Peterson’s 21st Space Wing, told the council. “Two is to foster the partnership we have with the city of Fountain.”
The Air Force wants the pollution cleaned up as badly as local residents do, Dorminey told the council.
“We are committed to finding a means to mitigate these concerns,” he said.
Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said the council knows better than to shoot the messengers from Peterson.
“While Peterson is where this potentially is coming from, they are not the ones who pull the strings,” Ortega said. “The leaders in Washington, D.C., are the ones we need to poke and prod.”
Monday, local officials twisted arms in Washington to prod the Air Force into faster action on the issue.
Officials from Fountain, Security and Widefield met with Air Force leaders at the Pentagon.
Locals are frustrated that they’re left with a substantial bill to install filters or bring in other water sources to get perfluorinated compounds out of their drinking water.
While the Air Force provided filters as part of an initial $4.3 million effort to provide clean water, the service didn’t come up with cash for buildings to house them, nor did it budget for pipelines to connect water users to other sources.
Water districts and utilities in Security, Widefield and Fountain have paid $6 million in checks responding to the water crisis, and they expect that tap to hit $12.7 million by the end of 2018.
The Air Force has said it won’t reimburse water districts for most of those expenses.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican who arranged the Pentagon confab, called the gathering productive.
“I think it was a good and frank discussion,” Lamborn said Tuesday. “The people from the local communities felt like they were being heard, and I think the Air Force listened.”
Lamborn said it remains unclear, though, whether the Air Force will pay up.
The congressman said he’s frustrated by the military’s slow response to the contamination.
“We don’t want the Air Force to continue dragging their feet; we want to push them to action,” he said.
The City Council meeting also comes a day after an open house held by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on a proposed site-specific groundwater standard in central and southern El Paso County for the toxic chemicals.
The standard would limit two well-known types of perfluorinated compounds in the area’s groundwater to 70 parts per trillion (ppt), or a shot glass of the chemical in 107 million gallons of water.
It also would create the state’s first legally enforceable means to make polluters clean up contaminated areas. The likely boundaries extend across a wide swath of the county, including central and eastern Colorado Springs, Peterson Air Force Base and southern portions of Fort Carson.
State officials plan to release their draft of the rules in December, and a hearing is slated for April 9.
While Fountain now relies on clean water from Colorado Springs Utilities, the city could be forced to pull water from the aquifer in a drought.
At the council meeting, leaders said they have been frustrated by the lack of communication from the Air Force. They had been asking to meet with Peterson bosses for months.
“I was disappointed in regard to how long it took this meeting to take place,” Mayor Pro Tem Phil Thomas told the brass. “At some point, I started to wonder if we were being forgotten or neglected.”
The Air Force acknowledged falling short.
“If we face a similar issue, we will handle it far better than we have,” Dorminey pledged.
But the meeting was a step in the right direction, leaders said.
“The message to them is: We understand there’s a process. It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Ortega said. “We want to know that when the time comes . the citizens have good clean water.”
And the Fountain council will keep taking the issue seriously.
“Water is the most important commodity there is in the world,” Thomas told the Peterson leaders.