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Colorado’s U.S. senators make second bid for military cash for toxic cleanup

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - August 23, 2018 - Updated: September 10, 2018

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U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, discuss a bipartisan immigration reform bill the Colorado lawmakers are proposing along with four other senators intended to help avert a government shutdown. (Photo courtesy U.S. Senate)U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, discuss their bipartisan immigration reform bill earlier this year. (Photo courtesy U.S. Senate)

Colorado lawmakers are making a second bid to get local water utilities reimbursed for cleaning up toxins tied to the Air Force after failing to get their provision in the National Defense Authorization Act.

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner this time are working to get an amendment to a defense spending bill that would reimburse $9 million to water providers in Security, Widefield and Fountain for their emergency actions in 2016 after tests found that the Widefield aquifer carried dangerous levels of perfluorinated compounds — chemicals tied to firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base.

“From the start, local water authorities took action to provide safe drinking water to Coloradans,” said Bennet, a Democrat, by email. “This amendment will ensure water providers are reimbursed for those efforts. The local communities stepped up, and now it’s time the federal government does the same.”

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that water in the aquifer exceeded a health standard for perfluorinated compounds of 70 parts per trillion. That’s a shot glass of the chemical in 107 million gallons of water.

The initial cleanup costs have been at the center of a two-year dispute between the utilities and the military, which said it couldn’t reimburse utilities for expenses that weren’t approved ahead of time.

Studies since the initial EPA warning have tied the contamination to runoff from firefighting foam used at a regional training facility at Peterson.

The military since has made conciliatory gestures, this year coming up with money for filtration systems and to cover the cost for utilities that are buying clean water from Colorado Springs.

The military has claimed it needed congressional help to repay utilities for the initial costs associated with the contamination, with a bill to override its existing policy. Several insiders, though, have told The Gazette that the Pentagon has battled earlier congressional efforts to create a reimbursement scheme.

Part of the resistance could stem from the vast scope of the issue facing the Pentagon, with perfluorinated contamination found in water systems near 126 U.S. military bases.

The effort could get a boost from Gardner’s endorsement. The Republican freshman senator emerged as a White House favorite this week, having traveled to a political rally in West Virginia with President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One.

Trump singled out Gardner in his remarks, saying: “He’s tremendous, and he’s done so much.”

On Wednesday, Gardner said he wants the administration to pay for the cost of contamination

“We will continue to fight to make the communities whole that have been impacted,” Gardner said in an email. “Our bipartisan amendment will reimburse municipal water authorities that faced immediate and necessary cleanup costs from their work to ensure their community has clean drinking water.”

The amendment will need political horsepower to make it through the annual brass-knuckled fight over defense spending, which will top $716 billion this year. It will need approval from Senate appropriators and the entire chamber before it gets scrutiny from the House.

In a bid for a similar measure this summer, a Bennet- inspired amendment was killed before it could be added to the annual defense policy bill.

If this new effort fails, the lawmakers say, they’ll keep fighting.

But a third try could wait until 2019 for consideration.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette