Congress proposes health study, funding to address toxic water in Southern Colorado

Author: Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - October 9, 2017 - Updated: October 9, 2017

A crew from Velocity Constructors, Inc., in Denver work on a new ion-exchange filter system Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at the Southmoor Water Treatment Plant for the Widefield Water and Sanitation District. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Congress likely will ask for a study to define the human health impacts of a toxic firefighting foam used by the Air Force for decades, fouling drinking water south of Colorado Springs and in many other locales.

The study — seen as a positive by those impacted — is ordered in the National Defense Authorization Act being hammered out in conference committee. But Colorado’s federal lawmakers say there’s not nearly enough money in the act to clean up chemicals that flowed locally from Peterson Air Force Base to the Widefield Aquifer. They also say the military is moving too slowly in addressing the crisis, first made public last year.

“I’m glad the Air Force has acknowledged the problem but I think they have dragged their feet too much,” Republican Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said last week.

As of now, the defense policy bill contains $30 million in cleanup cash and a requirement for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. The provisions, which cover scores of military-tied chemical contamination sites nationwide, are expected to gain easy approval.

But, said Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, “there is nowhere near what is needed” to make communities whole.

The Colorado lawmakers said the $30 million isn’t even a down payment on the billions of dollars a cleanup of the toxins could cost the U.S. military near installations nationwide and around the world.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its first warnings last year for high levels of perfluorinated compounds found in drinking water from the Widefield Aquifer, which serves communities in southern El Paso County.

Air Force investigators confirmed that perfluorinated chemicals used in firefighting foam at Peterson had leached into groundwater. To fix the problem, Air Force officials are proceeding under a process similar to the federal Superfund program, a time-consuming endeavor that could push cleanup out into the 2020s.

Meanwhile, Pikes Peak region water districts that spent millions of dollars to deal with the chemicals are pleading for financial help.


Local districts on the hook

The three largest water districts in the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas have spent about $6 million so far, and they’re likely on the hook for the vast majority of the roughly $12.7 million needed through 2018 to respond to the crisis.

That’s partly because the Air Force appears to have reneged on a promise to partially cover the cost of supplying clean water to Widefield and Security residents this past summer.

The Air Force recently told those water districts it no longer plans to write about $1.7 million in checks to partially pay for Security’s water purchases last summer and Widefield’s newly installed $2 million ion exchange treatment facility, the managers of both districts said.

Neither district opted to wait for the Air Force’s plodding contracting process, because doing so would have once more exposed residents to the toxic chemicals. Due to those districts’ efforts, residents haven’t received tainted water in roughly a year.

“We had a deadline, so we were moving faster than they were,” said Brandon Bernard, Widefield’s water manager. “So we asked them if they’d be willing to just cut us a check, and they said yes.

“And in between then and now, they discovered that due to internal financial policies that they are not allowed to do that.”

Instead, Bernard has asked the Air Force to pay to connect other affected wells to its new treatment plant, offering redundancy in case of an emergency. Air Force officials are currently reviewing the proposal, he said.

Roy Heald, Security Water and Sanitation Districts’ manager, said Air Force officials told him the service may cover about $1 million of the district’s extra water expenses next summer.

The rest of that $12.7 million expense includes installing filters – even those supplied by the Air Force – while the Air Force studies its role in contaminating the aquifer.

Bennet, Lamborn and residents want those costs reimbursed, but Air Force officials have said they have no plans to do so. Reimbursements can only come from legislation passed by Congress, Air Force officials say.

The proposed $30 million allocation is an encouraging step, said Curtis Mitchell, Fountain’s utilities director. But he wants more specifics.

“There’s not a lot of detail related to how that $30 million is allocated and split up and to be used,” Mitchell said. “Is it just for Peterson Field? How much of it could be available to assist us?”

Lamborn plans to get some of those questions answered during a meeting between local leaders and the Air Force at the Pentagon later this month.


A tablespoon on a 10-mile train

Mitchell hailed the upcoming meeting with Air Force leaders as a positive step to ensure the Pentagon understands the impact of the toxic chemicals on Fountain’s budget and ratepayers, and the need to be reimbursed for the nearly $4 million it expects to spend through 2018.

“We want to communicate that directly – that this is a top priority for our community and we have to address it, no matter what,” Mitchell said.

Bernard added that it will be a chance to fully discuss the far greater costs of implementing a permanent solution in Widefield. The district needs another $10 million to $12 million for longer-term improvements to treat all its wells, he said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plans a meeting this month in Fountain on proposed state regulations that could guide the military’s cleanup efforts in southern El Paso County.

The agency is pushing for a “site-specific groundwater standard” that would allow a maximum of 70 parts per trillion of perfluorinated compounds in groundwater across a region stretching from downtown Colorado Springs to the Pueblo County line.

That standard would be equivalent to about a tablespoon of the highly-potent chemical in a 10-mile string of railroad tank cars, the agency said. The standard would match the EPA’s current health advisory level, and it will have to pass a state regulatory board before taking effect.

The man-made compounds are found in Teflon coatings, fast-food containers and carpet sealants, but water contamination around the nation has been tied to military use of the chemicals in a firefighting foam that is highly effective against fuel fires.

The Air Force used the foam in training at Peterson since the 1970s, spraying it on the ground. The Air Force also discharged foam-tainted water from a fire training area containment tank into Colorado Springs sewers about three times a year.

The Air Force ignored studies dating to the 1970s showing chemicals like those in the foam were harmful to laboratory animals, a Gazette investigation found last year.

Researchers also have since linked perfluorinated compounds to a variety of health ailments including high cholesterol, depleted immune systems and some forms of cancer.

Once ingested, the chemicals can stay in the human body for decades.


Heat from the community

Bennet and Lamborn said they hope the CDC study clearly defines the risks faced by those who drank Widefield Aquifer water. With the measure containing the study still pending, it’s unclear when it will be conducted or the extent of its geographical focus.

Tests of the Widefield Aquifer showed PFC levels that topped out at 2,000 parts per trillion, nearly 70 times the proposed state limit. Soil tests at Peterson also found the chemical concentrated at several thousand times that level.

The new state regulations could require a cleanup to reduce the level to the new standard, said Tracie White, a spokeswoman for the state health agency.

The state regulations would be the first hard limit placed on the chemical here. The EPA warned of perfluorinated dangers with the 2016 health advisory, but has yet to require enforceable regulations.

Col. Todd Moore, who commands Peterson’s 21st Space Wing, said he’s feeling heat from the community as the wait for a cleanup continues.

“I do know we are still working through some issues,” Moore told a gathering of community leaders at the base last week. “Getting answers and getting responses on those things is important to me.” I know those answers aren’t coming fast enough, but we are working on it.”

Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette