Test wells may determine path of water contamination south of #Colorado Springs — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Graphic via GeologicResourcs.com
Graphic via GeologicResourcs.com

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder):

Drilling has begun on a test well near Peterson Air Force Base to assess how military firefighters contributed to water contamination south of Colorado Springs, and an investigation into a recent, massive release of water tainted with toxic firefighting foam at the base remains ongoing.

The first of 18 test wells was being drilled Thursday near the Colorado Springs Airport terminal close to a runway on the south side of the base. The Air Force said soil samples will be checked for perfluorinated compounds contained in the firefighting foam and groundwater contamination will be monitored…

[The Colorado Department of Health and Environment] said it was waiting for the conclusion of the Air Force’s investigation into the discharge to determine impacts.

The Air Force is in the process of installing $4.3 million worth of filters to scrub the chemical from the aquifer’s water with charcoal. The service has also paid nearly $900,000 for a Colorado School of Mines study into more efficient ways to remove the chemical from drinking water.

“The Air Force is still determining the ideal site for conducting the demonstration test,” the school said in a news release. “Due to the benefits of proximity, Mines researchers hope the chosen site will be in Colorado.”

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

Widefield Aquifer: Local, state and federal pols put pressure on the Air Force

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.
The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers):

Local, state and federal politicians Monday called for accountability and more investigation into the military’s use of firefighting foam after a Gazette investigation showed the Air Force ignored decades of warnings from its scientists about a toxic chemical in the foam. The chemical is suspected in widespread water contamination.

The investigation, published Sunday, found that the Air Force ran a series of tests dating back to the 1970s that found the foam harmed laboratory animals. The service also ignored warnings from the Army Corps of Engineers and continued to use it for 16 years after a major manufacturer and the EPA agreed to phase it out, citing environmental and health dangers.

“That’s the definition of negligence,” said Colorado Springs Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee, whose district spans Fountain Creek…

“We cannot be in a situation where we are allowing this to continue,” said Fountain Republican state Rep. Lois Landgraf, whose district also spans Fountain Creek…

What accountability could look like is up in the air.

Landgraf said she wants a state inquiry and may call for a hearing at the General Assembly.

“We need to be looking out for our citizens,” Landgraf said. “That’s the No. 1 priority.”

Lee said he wants the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to investigate the Air Force as a likely polluter, saying the agency should “also impose, if appropriate, fines and a sanctions.”

Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said he is focused on working with the Air Force to improve the city’s water supply.

“My hope is they’re in for the long haul,” Ortega said.

Unlike the Security and Widefield water districts, Fountain switched entirely to cleaner surface water last year. Security stopped using the fouled aquifer last month, and Widefield has yet to announce such a move.

Ortega voiced confidence the Air Force would follow through with its promise to spend about $4.3 million helping the impacted communities install well water filters.

“We can’t really go back and change what has happened in the past,” Ortega said. “It’s upsetting, but we’re going to work with what we can.”

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

PFCs: Air Force studies dating back decades show danger of foam that contaminated local water — The #Colorado Springs Gazette

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command
Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers):

The Air Force ignored decades of warnings from its own researchers in continuing to use a chemical-laden firefighting foam that is a leading cause of contaminated drinking water for at least 6 million Americans, including thousands of people south of Colorado Springs. Multiple studies dating back to the 1970s found health risks from the foam, and even an agreement 16 years ago between the Environmental Protection Agency and the foam’s main manufacturer to stop making the substance did not curtail the Air Force’s usage. Until drinking water tests announced by health officials this year revealed contaminated wells here, the Air Force did almost nothing to publicly acknowledge the danger of the firefighting chemical.

That contamination sent residents across southern El Paso County scrambling to buy bottled water and to test their blood for the toxic chemical, which, when ingested, can remain in the body for decades.

The Gazette’s investigation into the military’s research of perfluorinated compounds, the intensely powerful chemical in the foam, found:

– Studies by the Air Force as far back as 1979 demonstrated the chemical was harmful to laboratory animals, causing liver damage, cellular damage and low birth weight of offspring.

– The Army Corps of Engineers, considered the military’s leading environmental agency, told Fort Carson to stop using the foam in 1991 and in 1997 told soldiers to treat it as a hazardous material, calling it “harmful to the environment.”

– The EPA called for a phaseout of the chemical 16 years ago and 10 years ago found the chemical in the foam “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

Despite the warnings, the Air Force still uses the chemical in Colorado Springs, with at least 600 gallons of the firefighting chemical at Peterson Air Force Base. While that might not sound like much, it is mixed as a 3 percent solution with water. At that ratio, 600 gallons of chemical would combine with about 20,000 gallons of water to make 80 tons of fire suppressant.

The service plans to phase out the chemical in its firetrucks in coming weeks, but the Air Force still hasn’t determined when it will remove the chemical from firefighting foam systems at Peterson’s hangars.

The urgency of the issue came clearly into focus last week when Peterson Air Force Base announced the release of an additional 150,000 gallons of water polluted with the chemical into the Colorado Springs sewage system and from there into Fountain Creek.

After acknowledging the spill, Peterson officials said they weren’t required by law to notify downstream users of the water in the contaminant’s path.

“At this point, this is a nonregulated substance,” Peterson environmental chief Fred Brooks said…

Air Force Undersecretary Miranda Ballentine highlighted the Air Force’s $24 million effort to deliver clean water to the Pikes Peak region and elsewhere and defended the toxic foam as the “only fire-fighting product that met military specifications used to protect people and property from aviation fuel-based fires.

“The Air Force takes ownership of the possible negative impacts of our fire-fighting mission, and where we are responsible we will do the right thing to protect people and the environment,” she wrote in an email to The Gazette.

But even as the Air Force spends millions of dollars to filter water from the fouled aquifer below Security, Widefield and Fountain, the problem could last for generations…

EPA-mandated testing found at least 6 million Americans are dealing with water contaminated by the firefighting chemical and similar compounds – with many of them drinking from wells that likely were fouled by the Air Force, other military services or manufacturing sites.

Studies show that such chemicals can slowly kill. They can cause immune system and liver damage and have been linked to cancers, especially of the kidneys and testicles. Fetal development problems and low birth weight are a concern. And at a minimum, the firefighting foam can cause high cholesterol, a precursor to heart disease.

Exactly how the foam’s chemical harms people remains unclear, though scientists have strong theories. Researchers generally agree the chemical doesn’t directly damage human genetic material. Rather, it has largely been shown to suppress the immune system – allowing disease and ailments to surface over time.

Each person’s risk is based on myriad factors, including one’s genetic makeup, lifestyle, gender and the length of exposure to the chemical.

“It just tells us that it’s not possible under our current testing guidelines to fully capture every potential toxicological effect that could occur from exposure to a synthetic compound,” said Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of East Carolina’s Brody School of Medicine.

“I think it’s important that the people who are getting exposed understand that these exposure levels are based on probabilities,” DeWitt said. “So exposure does not equal toxicity – it equals probability of toxicity at a sustained exposure.”


While the Air Force has offered $4.3 million to help filter water in the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas, it claims that serious concerns first arose in 2009 – 30 years after its first known studies into the toxic effects of the chemical and 16 years after the EPA and the chemical’s largest manufacturer, 3M, issued a strong warning. By that time, such man-made chemicals had been found on every continent.

“3M data supplied to EPA indicated that these chemicals are very persistent in the environment, have a strong tendency to accumulate in human and animal tissues and could potentially pose a risk to human health and the environment over the long term,” the EPA said in a 2000 news release.

The EPA has yet to ban the chemical. The Air Force says it will remain in use through the end of the year. The military and the Department of Veterans Affairs said they have no plans to study the effects of the firefighting chemical on airmen and other troops who may have used it…

Studies show the first laboratory rats died from exposure to a perfluorinated compound in the 1960s.

More studies have found rats in the experiments had pups with low birth weights. Some rats suffered liver and kidney damage. Some contracted cancers.

According to Air Force documents obtained by The Gazette, a study by the service’s research laboratory in 1979 linked the chemical to damaged “thymus, bone marrow, stomach, mesentery, liver, and testes in the male rats.”

The service ordered a study published in 1981 that found the chemical could cause damage to female rats and their offspring, including low birth weight.

In the second study, pregnant female lab rats died when exposed to high doses of the chemical. The researchers wrote that the 1979 study confirmed exposure danger for male airmen, “but did not depict the potential hazard in Air Force women,” necessitating the follow-up.

That study also says the Air Force was a leader in studying the toxicity of firefighting foam, with the only literature on the subject coming from the service’s laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

More Air Force studies came after that, with several in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite alarming findings, the service kept using it, leading it to seep into drinking water in Colorado and around the globe.

In response to Gazette questions about its studies, an Air Force spokeswoman questioned the validity of the service’s own scientific work in the 1981 study of the foam.

“We were able to do an initial review of the report you provided and determined that specific chemical was never used in our Aviation Fire Fighting Foam and was only used for the purpose of that study,” spokeswoman Laura M. McAndrews wrote.

The study, though, says the chemical tested was a perfluorinated acid that Air Force scientists called “structurally related to a surfactant agent used in fire retardant foams by the Air Force.”


A different view

The Air Force’s view of the chemical’s history is different.

The Air Force’s top expert on the toxic chemical said the military didn’t really understand the danger of such chemicals, also known as PFCs, until 2009.

“So in 2009, taking this through 2009, EPA then issued a provisional health advisory for PFCs. And I think this is a real key point here is that’s when they issued that provisional health advisory,” explained Daniel Medina, a civilian at the Air Force’s Civil Engineer Center in San Antonio.

While the Air Force studied the firefighting foam’s toxicity, Medina said, the service would not change its chemical policies without direction from the EPA.

“Right, so again that’s where we’d look at the regulations that EPA and in this case the health advisories put out there to look to defer to that,” he said.

The toxic chemical in the firefighting foam and its sister chemical, a key ingredient in Teflon, were born out of the chemistry revolution after World War II.

The firefighting foam is a Vietnam-era military invention patented by the Navy’s Naval Research Laboratory as an alternative for battling aircraft fires aboard carriers.

The foam is credited with saving thousands of lives from shipboard and fuel fires. It seems almost miraculous for stopping burning fuel, forming a Jello- like barrier between the flames and the fuel that quickly stops the blaze.

“What it does is it helps you against flammable liquid fires,” explained the Air Force’s fire chief, James E. Podolske Jr…

Once the foam gets into the environment, though, it’s not going away.

Like fuel, the chemical’s backbone is a long string of carbon atoms – eight of them. Attached to those carbons is fluoride, forming a remarkably stable concoction using one of the strongest chemical bonds known to science. Perfluorinated compounds in the environment could outlast the sun before breaking down in a time frame normally precise scientists like Colorado School of Mines chemist Christopher Higgins can only describe as “geologic.”

Concerns about the firefighting foam were serious enough that a 1991 environmental assessment of Fort Carson by the Army Corps of Engineers concluded, “Firefighting operations that use (the foam) must be replaced with nonhazardous substitutes.”

In June, Gardner sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James asking the Air Force to publicly release all information it possessed on contamination in the Pikes Peak region. The senator, though, hadn’t been made aware of the repeated Air Force studies into the health risks of the foam.

“We have to have the measures taken to assure public safety,” Gardner told The Gazette. “We need the commitment of the Air Force to do a full reckoning of the documents you have cited.

“This isn’t something that can be swept under the rug,” Gardner said. “It has to be met with the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Routine use of foam for years

Even as the Air Force studied the risks of its firefighting foam, firefighters at Peterson Air Force Base sprayed the foam over and over onto the ground as practice for putting out airplane fires.

Using two unlined pits, firefighters dumped pools of jet fuel on the ground and lit it – simulating the perils of an airplane crash. The flames were extinguished by coating the pond in foam, said Kjonaas, the former base fire chief.

The practice at those pits continued until the early 1990s, when the Air Force completed a lined pit for those exercises, sending the remnants into the base’s sewer system. Scientists say a sewer system, though, is unlikely to remove the toxic firefighting chemical from water.

The foam was used routinely until 1999, when a propane-and-water system was installed.

The exact number of times the training was conducted at Peterson has not been released. Kjonaas said training was routine at Peterson during his time as chief, which ended in 2007, with foam being used as often as quarterly.

Until last year, the Air Force also put a small amount of foam on the ground for a daily check to make sure the foam system on fire trucks worked properly, said Podolske, the Air Force’s top firefighter.

“Spray testing at Fire Station No. 1 is done on the concrete ramp during good weather and at the volleyball court during inclement weather,” a report on contamination at Peterson says.

That daily testing has stopped.

“Because of the environmental concerns and the health hazard concerns right now while we were working this, we put out a cease and desist,” Podolske said.

One of the largest known local uses of the foam in recent years came on Dec. 23, 2010, when a single-engine plane crashed just north of a Peterson runway, killing the pilot and his passenger. A report on contamination at Peterson says “at least 100 gallons” of firefighting foam was sprayed to extinguish the wreckage…

Asked what he would do to clean up the new release, Peterson’s Brooks said there was little he could do because the chemical had left his base.

Pattern of contamination found

Industry has found plenty of uses for the same sturdy chemical in firefighting foam as well as similarly structured compounds. Most commonly, they’ve been used to treat carpets as a stain fighter. They were also used in nonstick cookware and at one time were used in food wrappers.

Those manufacturers harbored concerns about such chemicals decades ago.

DuPont issued an internal memo raising health concerns in the early 1960s, according to a Harvard University report. A study in the 1970s on the chemical’s effects on monkeys’ immune systems went unpublished, though other studies in the 1980s and 1990s deepened health concerns, the Harvard report said.

But the firefighting foam, so commonly sprayed on the ground in large quantities, is “likely the most important way in which we have contaminated water supplies around the globe with fluorochemicals,” said Higgins, the School of Mines chemist.

A recent study by Higgins and other researchers found that one of the greatest predictors of contaminated water systems in the U.S. is their proximity to a military firefighting training area that used the foam, along with manufacturing sites and wastewater treatment plants.

The Air Force is studying an estimated 2,800 fire training areas and other places the foam was sprayed at present and past installations around the world. That includes a half-dozen sites at Peterson Air Force Base and the Colorado Springs Airport.

Results of the Colorado Springs study are not due until March.

Near Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Wash., researchers found how the firefighting foam chemical is passed through the ecosystem, with each species accumulating more of the toxin as it moves up the food chain.

The study, by the Washington State Department of Ecology, focused on ospreys, the predatory birds that rule lakes and rivers around the Spokane base.

“The osprey come back in the spring, and they just eat a ton of fish,” said Callie Mathieu, a research coordinator for the agency.

The fish swim in Medical Lake, near the base, where a sewage outflow has pumped the firefighting chemical. Ospreys pick up more of the chemical with each fish they consume.

“When they lay their eggs a month later, they pass on that contaminate burden to their eggs,” Mathieu said.

The concept is the same for humans. When the EPA issued its latest advisory in May, Colorado health officials said women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or bottle-feeding infants may want to avoid their water. That’s largely because infants are the most susceptible to the dangers such chemicals pose. The threat includes miscarriage and low birth weight, a key factor in infant mortality.

That EPA advisory warned that water could be harmful if such chemicals surpassed more than 70 parts per trillion – significantly lower than an advisory issued in 2009. Speaking again to the power of the foam, the 3 percent chemical with 97 percent water solution used to fight fires is 300,000 parts per trillion. A tablespoon of the chemical in 20 Olympic-sized pools would easily exceed the EPA threshold.

Contamination in wells in the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas ranged from just a couple of parts per trillion to 2,000 parts per trillion, nearly 30 times the EPA’s advisory level, tests this year showed. The average reading of 108 groundwater test sites was 164 parts per trillion, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, more than two times the EPA’s health advisory level. The median for those groundwater tests was about 115 parts per trillion.

Philippe Grandjean, who teaches at Harvard and the University of Southern Denmark, isn’t satisfied with current limits. He wants the EPA to further limit exposure to an infinitesimal level – 1 part per trillion, because such chemicals stay in the body for years.

“These compounds are much more toxic than we thought,” Grandjean said.

‘A lot of unanswered questions’

The military has yet to face any lawsuits stemming from its use of the chemical in Colorado. For the most part, federal agencies are immune from liability.

Some local politicians have praised the military for its actions to clean Pikes Peak region drinking water while refusing to comment on how the water got contaminated.

“The Air Force is going above and beyond in their willingness to be a good community partner and neighbor with their multi-million dollar response commitment to this particular issue,” Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “The money and time they are investing will go a long way toward addressing the needs of the citizens of our region.”

Several firefighting foam manufacturers and other companies making perfluorinated compounds have been sued.

Manufacturers of certain perfluorinated compounds have faced lawsuits since at least the late 1990s, and a landmark settlement in one case led to Dr. Brooks’ research project that collected blood samples from 69,000 people in the mid-Ohio Valley, a region east of Cincinnati centered on Parkersburg, W.Va.

Brooks said the study revealed many health problems, especially high cholesterol stemming from such chemicals. Worse, he said, the health impacts can last a lifetime because the human body can’t get rid of them.

Two federal lawsuits seeking class-action status for Security, Widefield and Fountain residents have been filed against 3M and several other companies that made the foam and supplied it to Peterson Air Force Base. They seek money for local medical studies and damages.

A spokesman for the law firm representing 3M, which phased out production of the chemical in 2002, said last month that the company will “vigorously” defend itself against the lawsuits, just as it has in the past.

The chemical that 3M included in its foam is similar – though slightly different – from what DuPont made. The EPA, however, lumped them together in its May advisory, citing similarities and health concerns about each.

A resolution to the lawsuits might take years.

For now, the people receiving contaminated water in their kitchen taps have been left with the tab…

Combined, Security, Widefield and Fountain water officials have spent millions of dollars purchasing additional, cleaner water from other agencies or to widen their existing pipes and install new ones that bring in contaminant-free water from the Pueblo Reservoir or both.

Permanently disconnecting from the Widefield aquifer is infeasible, water district leaders say, because too little water exists elsewhere to meet demand without skyrocketing costs. As a result, the water district might build new treatment plants to filter the chemicals from their well water.

Those projects, however, typically cost millions of dollars and take years to complete…

But long after the Air Force follows through with its plan to destroy its remaining stocks of firefighting foam, a toxic legacy will remain for those who drank water from contaminated wells, Dr. Brooks said.

“If you are 60 years old, you can’t live long enough to get down to a level that it is not going to bother you.”

From The Colorado Springs Gazette:

Timeline: History of contamination

1947: Perfluorinated compounds are produced at a 3M plant in Cottage Grove, Minn.

1962: DuPont issues an internal memo raising health concerns.

1967: The Naval Research Laboratory patents Aqueous Film-Forming Foam to fight shipboard fires. “This firefighting foam is now used on all U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and by major airports, refineries, and other areas where potentially catastrophic fuel fires can occur,” the lab says on its website.

About 1970: The Navy’s foam is adopted by the Air Force for airfield use, replacing earlier foams that were less effective but nontoxic.

1979: An Air Force study using perfluorinated chemicals similar to those in firefighting foam finds it damaged “thymus, bone marrow, stomach, mesentery, liver, and testes in the male rats.”

1980: A study finds high concentrations of fluorochemicals in the blood of plant workers at a manufacturing plant, though researchers found no attributable health effects.

1981: Another Air Force study finds the chemical in the firefighting foam is harmful to female rats. The Air Force says the study was needed to show “the potential hazard in Air Force women.”

1983: An Air Force study on the effects of firefighting foam chemicals on mouse tissue found they “caused impairment of clone-forming (cell replication) ability after treatment with concentrations that were non-toxic in suspension.”

1985: An Air Force study finds that perfluorinated compounds could be harmful to cellular growth. “This would imply that these perfluorinated acids are producing toxicity through a membrane interaction.”

1991: The Army Corps of Engineers tells Fort Carson to quit using the firefighting foam at the post, saying it “must be replaced with nonhazardous substitutes.”

1993: An Air Force study finds that rats exposed to firefighting foam chemicals suffer liver effects.

1997: An Army study tells soldiers to treat the firefighting foam as hazardous waste. “In large volumes, AFFF foam can be harmful to the environment. AFFF solution should not be allowed to flow untreated into the ecosystem, or into the sewage systems in large quantities.”

1997: A Navy study attempts to break down the toxic chemicals of firefighting foam using bacteria. The experiment fails.

2000: The EPA and manufacturer 3M issue joint statement warning of the chemicals’ dangers.

2002: 3M finishes phasing out its production of perfluorinated compounds.

2005: A landmark settlement is reached between DuPont and residents in the mid-Ohio Valley over water contamination near a manufacturing plant. It established the C8 Project that tested the blood of 69,000 people and led researchers to say the chemicals are associated with six health conditions: kidney and testicular cancers, diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

2005-06: An EPA draft assessment finds a “suggestive” link to cancer, and a follow-up review finds one such chemical is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

2006: A study finds levels of one type of perfluorinated compound “greatly exceeded general population medians,” largely due to drinking water contamination from a nearby chemical manufacturing plant.

2006: The eight leading manufacturers of perfluorinated compounds commit to ending production of the chemicals by 2015 as part of an EPA stewardship program.

2007: The Air Force says in 2007 it first learned from the EPA that firefighting foam might be dangerous. The service doesn’t take action until a stronger warning in 2009.

2009: The EPA issues its first provisional health advisories about perfluorinated compounds that say “epidemiological studies of exposure to (the chemicals) and adverse health outcomes in humans are inconclusive at present.”

2011: An Army study finds the chemical in firefighting foam causes immune system damage. “However, autism risk cannot be determined from these data alone.”

2012: A study shows perfluorinated compounds are associated with reduced vaccine effectiveness among children ages 5 and 7.

2013: Water districts – largely those serving 10,000 customers or more – begin an EPA-led effort to test their water for perfluorinated compounds through 2015.

2014: Reduced vaccine effectiveness is found in the mid-Ohio Valley population.

2015: A statement authored by 14 leading scientists on perfluorinated compounds, called The Madrid Statement, warns of the dangers these chemicals pose.

May 2016: The EPA tightens its guidance regarding PFCs, issuing a health advisory for water containing 70 parts per trillion or more of perfluorinated compounds.

August: A study is published that finds firefighting sites that used the chemical-laden foam were one of the greatest predictors of nearby water contamination.

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

Fountain Creek: 150 KGAL of PFC-laden water released into #Colorado Springs sewer system by Peterson AFB

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.
The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The spill, which Air Force officials said they’re investigating, happened as the Air Force increasingly faces scrutiny as a source of groundwater contamination nationwide.

The surge of waste containing elevated perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) — used at military airfields to douse fuel fires and linked by federal authorities to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, low birth weights and other health problems — flowed through a Colorado Springs Utilities wastewater treatment plant before crews could try to block it. Then it trickled into Fountain Creek.

“Even if we would have been able to head it off at the plant, we’re not equipped. I don’t know of any wastewater plants in the country equipped to remove PFCs,” utilities spokesman Steve Berry said. “We would not have been able to remove that chemical before it was discharged back into the environment from our effluent.”

Fountain Creek flows south toward Pueblo and into the Arkansas River.

Pueblo Board of Water Works spokesman Paul Fanning said Pueblo didn’t hear about the spill until reporters made inquiries Tuesday.

“We don’t use any groundwater or surface water from Fountain Creek. We use water from the Arkansas River taken upstream from where Fountain Creek flows in,” Fanning said. “But it is not a good thing to have those contaminants anywhere in our water. There are some reported health effects. It is in our interest to protect our public.”


The PFC-laced waste was held in a tank at a firefighter training area on the base, located at the southeastern edge of Colorado Springs. PFCs are a component in the aqueous film-forming foam used to extinguish fuel fires.

Air Force officials said in the statement that they discovered the spill Oct. 12 during an inspection. They notified Colorado Springs Utilities the next day. The tank was part of a system used to recirculate water to a firefighter training area…

In Colorado, government well test data show PFCs have contaminated groundwater throughout the Fountain Creek watershed, nearly as far south as Pueblo, at levels up to 20 times higher than that EPA health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Public-water authorities in Fountain, Security and Widefield have scrambled to provide enough alternative water. Security has been purchasing millions of gallons of diverted Arkansas River water from Colorado Springs, installing new pipelines and minimizing pumping from contaminated municipal wells. Since Sept. 9, Security has not pumped any water from wells, water and sanitation district manager Roy Heald said. “This spill does not affect us immediately,” Heald said. “Our only concern would be the long-term effect on Fountain Creek and the Widefield Aquifer.”

Some parents south of Colorado Springs began paying for bottled water — to be safe. A contractor delivers emergency bottled water to at least 77 households.

The Air Force has contributed $4.3 million to help communities deal with the contamination.

Colorado Springs utilities crews will work with the military “to keep PFCs out of our system. That is the goal,” Berry said. “How do we protect our customers and our system from this chemical? That is the focus. It goes beyond the Air Force. It is any industrial process that may use that chemical.”

El Paso County Public Health “takes this discharge seriously and will coordinate with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment to collect water samples along Fountain Creek, if warranted,” spokeswoman Danielle Oller said.

CDPHE has been informed, agency spokesman Mark Salley said, adding: “It is under investigation by the Air Force, and the department is waiting for information. … The Air Force has demonstrated its commitment to identifying and addressing PFC contamination at Peterson Air Force Base and facilities nationwide.”

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers):

The release last week posed no threat to Colorado Springs drinking water.

The base said the release was discovered Oct. 12. The cause hasn’t been determined, but Fred Brooks, Peterson’s environmental chief, said the holding tank was designed to be difficult to discharge.

“It’s not a direct connection,” Brooks said. “This tank would have to have numerous valves switched to actually discharge.”

Was it intentional?

“That’s a possibility,” Brooks said…

An investigation has been opened to determine the cause of the discharge, said Col. Doug Schiess, who commands Peterson’s 21st Space Wing, in the statement.

Colorado Springs Utilities said the chemical-laden water passed through the utility’s Las Vegas Street sewage treatment plant and was released into Fountain Creek. The plant does not have the capacity to remove the chemical.

“There was no risk to the drinking water,” said Steve Berry, a Utilities spokesman. “This did not impact the drinking water, the finished water system, in any way. It went directly into the wastewater system.”

While Peterson notified Colorado Springs, base officials didn’t warn others downstream. Brooks said the base isn’t required to issue a wider notification, noting that the chemical is “unregulated” – a term used for substances that haven’t drawn enforceable drinking water standards…

Peterson had scheduled a public firefighting demonstration on Oct. 12, the day the discharge was discovered. The fire training exercise was canceled, with a spokesman at the base blaming the delay on a “bad valve”

Brooks, the base environmental officer, said two mechanical valves and an electric one must be switched to allow water to flow out of the tank, which held the outflow from fire training exercises dating back as far as 2013.

He said the water wasn’t tested for levels of the firefighting chemical.

A second tank on the base holding fire training residue wasn’t discharged.

The Air Force banned use of the foam outside fire emergencies last year and last month announced a plan to replace the product at all of its bases around the globe. Brooks said the foam at Peterson will be replaced in about two weeks.

The water contamination in Security, Widefield and Fountain has drawn a pair of lawsuits against the manufacturers of the firefighting foam alleging they sold it to the Air Force despite its toxic risks.

Although downstream, no drinking water supplied to Pueblo residents by the Pueblo Board of Water Works comes from Fountain Creek, said Paul Fanning, the agency’s spokesman. The Pueblo Reservoir does not pull from Fountain Creek.

The Widefield Water and Sanitation District is the only water system immediately downstream of the treatment plant now using the Widefield Aquifer, which leaches water from Fountain Creek, where the chemicals flowed.

Widefield officials have previously said they plan to shut off their wells by sometime in October.

Other communities have shut off their wells to the tainted aquifer.

All the water flowing to homes supplied by the Security and Fountain water systems now comes from the Pueblo Reservoir – meaning that last week’s spill should not affect those communities.

“The long-term effects would be concerning,” said Roy Heald, Security water district’s general manager. “But short-term immediate effects – there wouldn’t be any for us.”

The EPA said it wasn’t involved with the spill.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment gave the Air Force a vote of confidence despite the chemical discharge.

“The Air Force has demonstrated its commitment to identifying and addressing (perfluorinated compound) contamination at Peterson Air Force Base and facilities nationwide,” the state agency said.

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command
Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

Pueblo County: $6 million Fountain Creek levee dough before commissioners tonight

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.
The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

Update: The commissioners approved the project according to Anthony A. Mestas writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

The deal is one piece of an intergovernmental agreement between Pueblo County, the city of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities.

Utilities agreed to provide up to $3 million as matching funds to repair or improve the levee system within Pueblo.

On Monday, the commissioners released funds previously obtained by Pueblo County under the Southern Delivery System 1041 permit to use the monies toward meeting the funding match and the $6 million total.

The commissioners passed the resolution 2-0. Commissioner Sal Pace was excused from the meeting Monday.

“We are pretty thrilled with it. The IGA allowed us to leverage an additional $3 million from Colorado Springs to match $3 million coming from Pueblo to go into this project,” said Commissioner Terry Hart.

Hart said The Lower Arkansas Valley Conservancy District also stepped up to help with debris removal from the creek in the amount of $100,000. The county previously paid $100,000 for the debris removal.

The county is offsetting the city’s three-year obligation of $3 million with $1.6 million, Hart said.

“The city’s obligation over three years is basically the remaining $1.2 million. They (city) stepped to the plate Monday (at a council meeting) and said this will work,” Hart said.

“All of this is designed to see if we can get working as quickly as possible right now that the water is down for the year,” Hart said.

Hart said the project should start within the next few weeks.

“We are hoping to get it done as quickly as possible to protect our town as quickly as possible and then go on to all the other things we are supposed to be doing under the intergovernmental agreement under the 1041 permit,” Hart said.

Hart said the work needs to happen for the safety of citizens and businesses in the event of flooding.

“We all saw the effect when you have a problem with a levee system when it came to (Hurricane) Katrina and what happened in New Orleans,” Hart said.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Anthony A. Mestas):

The Pueblo County commissioners are scheduled to vote Monday on an agreement with the city of Pueblo and its Stormwater Utility Enterprise that will provide up to $6 million to fund a high-priority project to maintain the integrity of the Fountain Creek levee system.

County officials said as part of an intergovernmental agreement negotiated between Pueblo County, Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities, it was agreed upon by Utilities to provide up to $3 million as matching funds to repair or improve the levee system within Pueblo.

The agreement under consideration by the commissioners today would release funds previously obtained by Pueblo County under the Southern Delivery System 1041 Permit and use the monies toward meeting the funding match and the $6 million total.

Colorado College community pitches in on Fountain Creek cleanup

CC President Jill Tiefenthaler hands out snacks to volunteers. Photo via Colorado College.
CC President Jill Tiefenthaler hands out snacks to volunteers. Photo via Colorado College.

Here’s the release from Colorado College:

More than 350 members of the Colorado College community participated in a local day of service, cleaning up trash along neighboring Monument Creek. Participants worked in two-hour shifts and collected a total of 3,140 pounds of trash from both sides of a two-mile stretch of the creek.

The daylong event, sponsored by CC’s Collaborative for Community Engagement, EnAct, and the Regional Business Alliance, brought out CC faculty, students, and staff, as well as neighbors and area alumni.

The lure of the water and the potential of the area appealed to many, including those who went as part of a CC class called Re-enchanting the World: Reality in Ecological Perspective, co-taught by mathematician Mike Siddoway and theologian Phil Devenish. Among them:

  • Cassie Cohen ’17, a psychology major from Lincoln, Massachusetts, says she wanted to help clean up the creek “because it feels like a part of our campus.”
  • Leah Di Filippo ’17, an economics major from Gladstone, New Jersey, says cleaning the watershed area “will help change how it’s viewed and how it’s branded.”
  • Ben Garinther ’17, a fly fisherman from Baltimore with a self-designed major in environmental philosophy, says “This creek should be valued more. It would be unreal to come down here and fish in Monument Creek.”
  • Rebecca Glazer ’18 from San Francisco with a self-designed major in philosophies of sustainable development, says “It’s important. CC has a responsibility for the waterway that flows through it.”
  • Local alumna Carrie Ryden ’95, MAT ’96 joined the cleanup effort, along with husband Doug and 9-year-old daughter Hazel. “It’s something we can all do together as a family, and the fact that we’re doing it as part of a community is even better,” she says.
  • Other communities were represented as well. All six Greek life organizations on campus participated, and well as nine Colorado College athletic teams, including men and women’s lacrosse, women’s basketball, men’s soccer, cross-country, tennis, women’s rugby, Nordic skiing, and swimming and diving.

    A variety of student organizations joined the effort, including Mortar Board, CC’s Student Government Association, President’s Council, Chinese Students Association, Community Engaged Scholars, and Boettcher Scholars. Entire CC offices had strong showings, including Human Resources, the Career Center, and Communications. Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler was on site during the afternoon, handing out water and a variety of snacks to the volunteers.

    Community members got involved as well, with participants from the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, Regional Business Alliance, Old North End Neighborhood, Steele Elementary School, Palmer High School, and Patty Jewett Neighborhood Association.

    Jake Walden ’16, a fellow in the President’s Office and lead coordinator on campus for the effort, said he was pleased with the enthusiastic turnout. The event was capped off by a community barbecue for volunteers, which was hosted by members of EnAct, a CC student environmental organization, and paid for by the CC Student Government Association.

    Security now on 100% surface water

    Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
    Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

    From KOAA.com:

    All Security Water District customers are now using Perflourinated Chemical (PFC) free surface water. According to Security Water officials, the surface water is brought in from the Pueblo Reservoir. Groundwater wells in the area have been shut down since the EPA found elevated levels of PFC’s, a man-made chemical, in water sources used by Fountain, Security, and Widefield.

    The US Air Force plans on changing the type of firefighting foam it uses because of concerns that the foam is responsible for the water contamination.

    Photo via USAF Air Combat Command
    Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):

    The move by Security Water and Sanitation Districts signaled the last time that contaminated water is expected to reach residents’ homes, said Roy Heald, the water district’s general manager.

    “We’re confident now that we can maintain this, really, until we can get treatment online,” Heald said.

    Security’s announcement comes as temperatures cool and the summer watering season comes to a close.

    Water districts in Security, Widefield and Fountain have traditionally relied largely on surface water pumped into the area from the Pueblo Reservoir during winter months. However, those water districts relied much more heavily on the Widefield aquifer during the spring and summer months to meet demand.

    That strategy became a problem in May when the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its guidelines over perfluorinated compounds and left residents in Security, Widefield and Fountain scrambling to find other water sources.

    Fountain managed to go the entire summer without dipping into the aquifer, due largely to watering restrictions.

    Widefield Water and Sanitation District, however, does not expect to completely wean itself from the contaminated aquifer until “sometime in October,” according to Brandon Bernard, Widefield’s water department manager.

    In Security, multiple projects are underway to ensure the chemicals no longer get into the drinking water, Heald said.

    This year, the district purchased extra surface water from Colorado Springs Utilities to limit its well water use.

    And this winter, Security plans to install a second line connecting it to the Southern Delivery System – a move that should significantly boost its capacity for bringing in cleaner water from the Pueblo Reservoir.

    Both moves are meant to keep the district from using well water until it can be filtered. The Air Force has promised to provide nearly $4.3 million in water filters to affected water systems and well owners, though Security may not get any filters until next year…

    The chemicals have been associated with a host of health ailments, including kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

    Two lawsuits seeking class-action status have been filed on behalf of residents in the area against the manufacturers who produced and sold the chemicals.