Subscribing to the print edition of the New York Times takes nearly $1,000 annually out of your pocket at full rate. With careful account management, you can cut down that figure substantially, but it’s still a big number. It’s also worth it.
One cold February morning, a long article in the Times Magazine caught my eye. It was about water pollution originating in a DuPont chemical plant, and the impact of the pollutants upon workers at the plant and local residents whose wells and watercourses were polluted. Livestock died, people got sick and DuPont stonewalled for decades.
The pollutants: perfluorinated substances, a family of industrial chemicals developed by 3M in 1947 and used in a wide variety of industrial processes.
Not the kind of thing we’d have to worry about in the Pikes Peak region, right?
This sentence stood out in the story: “The Environmental Working Group has found manufactured fluorochemicals present in 94 water districts across 27 states… (including) Colorado Springs, CO.”
Spurred on further by an email from former Colorado Publishing House executive Fran Zankowski, I went to work. A few days later, CSBJ published the results. Wells serving residents of Security, Widefield and Fountain were contaminated by PFCs, remarkably toxic chemicals that are not biodegradable, are extraordinarily stable and dangerous even in microscopic quantities. PFCs were then classified as “reportable, but not regulated substances” by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“In 2009,” Nathaniel Rich reported in the Times, “the EPA set a ‘provisional’ limit of 0.4 parts per billion for short-term exposure to PFOA (perfluorooctaneic acid, arguably the most toxic PFC) but has never finalized that figure. This means that local water districts are under no obligation to tell customers whether PFOA is in their water.”
There is remarkable consensus in the scientific community: PFOs should be regulated by the EPA, and the EPA’s provisional limits were at least 100 times higher than the safe level.
Officials at the three water districts serving southeast Colorado Springs reacted to the story with consternation and denial. Like Kevin Bacon in Animal House, their message was simple: “Remain calm — all is well!”
However, they acted swiftly, closing six water wells out of what they classified as “an abundance of caution.” Further tests led to suggestions that people using private well water find an alternative source or install water filters.
Soon after the story was published, a joint statement by the EPA, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and El Paso County Health also sought to reassure residents of southern El Paso County that their water was safe to drink.
Skepticism prevailed in the three towns — and rightly so. In May, the EPA finally issued an advisory warning against long-term exposure to drinking water with a concentration of PFOA or PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) higher than 0.07 parts per billion.
All was not well — PFC levels in many of the wells supplying the three systems exceed the new EPA levels, which remain far above those supported by much of the scientific community.
Why did this happen? Given that these chemicals have been around since the 1950s, that their toxicity and environmental ubiquity has been clear since the 1970s and they’re present in reportable levels in water systems serving more than 5 million Americans, why didn’t EPA act sooner?
Why are 80,000 residents at risk?
The answer: systemic regulatory failure. The 1976 Toxic Substances Act effectively barred the EPA from proactive regulation of most industrial chemicals. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and El Paso County Health must follow the EPA’s lead. Regulation is effectively up to the chemical companies, which has led to predictable results — more than 1,500 substances that are banned or tightly regulated in Europe are unregulated in the U.S.
The water providers aren’t at fault. They expected, reasonably enough, that the EPA would identify any dangerous pollutants in their systems.
Governmental dysfunction and foot-dragging created the problem, and fairness demands that affected residents not be forced to fund the remedy.
We don’t yet know the source or persistence of the pollutants. Will the PFC plume eventually migrate out of the aquifer, making well water once again safe and drinkable? There’s no way to tell, and any guess would be mere conjecture.
The simple and equitable solution is to have state and federal governments fund long-term water supply contracts with Colorado Springs Utilities and the Southern Delivery System.
Both governments should move quickly and decisively, and get to work immediately.
No more stonewalling, no more evasions, no more deceptive public relations. It’s time to fix the problem, not deny that there is one.