Despite an extensive effort, state health officials have not yet found the source of contamination for public wells serving families in Fountain, Security and Widefield.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment started seeking the source of chemical contamination in February, but so far has come up empty, officials say.
“We’re trying to zero in on potential areas that could be sources,” said Tracie White, who leads the state health department’s Federal Facilities Remediation and Restoration Unit. “We start by looking at the plume — where is the contaminant? We don’t have a way to speculate about particular sites.”
Those sites might include Peterson Air Force Base, the former EaglePicher plant or the former Schlage Lock manufacturing facility, all located in the Fountain Valley.
In March, the Air Force confirmed that firefighting foam containing the chemicals was released at 200 Air Force installations, including Peterson. A team of Air Force civil engineers is sampling groundwater at Peterson in an effort to determine whether contaminants have leaked into water wells in the area.
EaglePicher once manufactured batteries in a plant adjacent to the Schlage Lock facility. The plant was cited for nitrate pollution of groundwater in the 1990s. And Schlage Lock has already gone to court over a different set of contaminants in the water in the Fountain Valley.
When news broke in January that the water was contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, known as PFOS — both linked to serious health risks — the water districts went on the defensive, shutting down several wells in Security and enlisting the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and El Paso County Public Health to help alleviate public concern.
Yet the story isn’t over.
While the source of the contamination isn’t yet known, experts say that it’s usually localized.
“For most people, their source of exposure to PFOA and PFOS has come through food and consumer products,” the EPA said in a press release. “But drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in the small percentage of communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies. This is typically a localized issue associated with a specific facility — for example, in communities where a manufacturing plant or airfield made or used these chemicals.”
Advice of an attorney
But anxious Fountain Valley residents aren’t waiting to find a source — some are already talking to prominent trial attorney Perry Sanders.
Local hotelier/attorney Sanders is all too familiar with water pollution problems in the Fountain Valley. In 2003, Sanders represented thousands of area residents in a class action demanding that Schlage accelerate its efforts to clean up chemicals used as a degreaser that were polluting the Widefield aquifer.
While confirming that concerned Fountain Valley residents have contacted him, Sanders declined to speculate about the origin of the contaminants.
“I’m glad to hear that CDPHE is working on this,” he said. “We really need to find out the source with a degree of certainty.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has long characterized perfluorinated compounds as “contaminants of emerging concern” that are not yet regulated by the agency.
Such contaminants must be reported to the EPA, which uses the information to regulate contaminants in the future under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The EPA has said that it won’t set enforceable standards for PFCs in drinking water until at least 2019. However, earlier this month, it took the step of lowering public health advisory level for the chemicals. The safe contaminant level, according to the EPA, is now 70 parts per trillion.
That’s not much — as Bill Walker and David Andrews of the Washington, D.C.-based research nonprofit Environmental Working Group noted, it’s “about a drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
The EPA said the new advisory level was set to protect health during critical windows of infant and child development when harm is most likely to occur.
The damage could be serious.
“A robust body of independent research has also linked the chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, endocrine disruption and other health problems, and the newest research says they can cause harm at levels 70 or more times lower than the EPA recommended,” reported the two scientists.
The ubiquitous contaminants
3M created the chemical compounds in 1951, but they were used most widely by DuPont in manufacturing common household products that use Scotchgard or Teflon until the chemicals were phased out in 2002.
Unlike other industrial chemicals, the compounds neither decay nor break down. Nearly all Americans have minute quantities of the PFOAs and PFCs in their bodies.
Since PFCs aren’t currently regulated, local water providers are not required to report PFC contamination to their customers.
Regulated or not, PFCs are singularly nasty compounds, which have so far escaped regulation because of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act didn’t require regulations of chemicals created in the years before the law.
But that could change this week, according to reports from Washington, D.C. Congress is set to vote on an bipartisan update to the act, that would allow the EPA to regulate older chemicals like perfluroinated compounds, and the new provisions would pre-empt state regulations.
The bill passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
SDS to the rescue
For the three small municipal water systems struggling with contaminated wells, there’s an obvious solution at hand: Colorado Springs Utilities’ Southern Delivery System. The project will formally come on line on June 17, bringing uncontaminated water from the Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs and its partners.
“Fountain and Security are SDS partners,” said Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman, “but Widefield is not.”
That doesn’t mean that the two partners can take as much SDS water as they want. Each owns a specific amount — any additional water usage would have to be negotiated with CSU and other project partners.
Shutting down wells and relying entirely upon Fountain Valley Authority/SDS water might increase water costs to customers, but it would also reassure them and protect the systems from potential impacts of EPA regulation after 2019.
However, there is also a less expensive solution: Health officials say homeowners in the area can purchase charcoal filters to remove the chemicals from the water.