In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, the Air Force announced that it would provide $4.3 million to water systems serving Security, Widefield and Fountain. The money will be used to fund the installation of granular activated carbon  filtration systems to remove perfluorinated substances from potable water. The filtration systems were described as an “interim step” toward solving the long term problem of PFO contamination of drinking water in southeast El Paso County.

In February, a CSBJ investigative report revealed that wells providing water to systems serving 80,000 residents of Widefield, Security and Fountain are contaminated with PFOs. These contaminants, then classified as “emerging contaminants“ that are reportable to the EPA but not regulated have been used for decades in many industrial processes and products. As the report pointed out, 200 scientists worldwide joined in he “Madrid Statement” of 2015, calling for a total ban on the use of such substances and suggesting that EPA had ignored and/or downplayed the dangers associated with PFO exposure.

The official response to our report was muted. Officials at the water providers insisted that there was no danger to the public, although a couple of wells were shut down “through an abundance of caution.” In a joint statement, the Colorado Department of Public Health, the EPA and El Paso County Health assured residents of the affected areas ha here was no danger to public health.

All that changed in May when, after years of foot-dragging, the EPA revised its maximum recommended limits for long-term PFO exposure in drinking water from 400 parts per trillion (PPT) to 70 PPT. This prompted a flurry of official activity, as investigators from the CDPHE stepped up their efforts to find the source of PFO contamination.

The contaminants, it now appears, entered the now polluted aquifers through firefighting exercises at Peterson Air Force Base. Given that Peterson has long provided first responder firefighting capability to Colorado Springs Airport, the exercises were very frequent. From 1970-1990, firefighters used aqueous film forming foam in the exercises.

The foam contain two particularly toxic PFOs, perfluorooctaneic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). In a 2015 investigative report, The Intercept documented the toxic effects of AFFF derived PFO pollution of wells near several Air Force bases. Given that these substances are both extremely stable and highly toxic, it’s likely that high levels of PFO aquifer pollution will persist near these sites for many years.

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In Tuesday’s press release, the Air Force characterized the $4.3 million program as a “proactive measure is being taken as a good neighbor approach while the investigation continues.”

In fact, it means that PAFB is certainly the source of the PFOs that have contaminated wells throughout the Fountain Valley. It’s also clear that the Air Force recognizes the fact that residents of the area will not be satisfied with an interim solution.

In the next few months, we can expect that complex six-way negotiations between Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo County, the Air Force and the three water systems will be underway, and will include folks from CDPHE and El Paso County Health. The probable result: an agreement to supply water from the Southern Delivery System to the three water providers.

Here’s the compete press release

With the ongoing investigation into perfluorochemicals in the Security, Fountain and Widefield watershed, the Air Force has awarded a $4.3 million rapid response contract as an interim measure to treat drinking water.

“This proactive measure is being taken as a good neighbor approach while the investigation continues,” said Lt. Col. Chad Gemeinhardt, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron commander.

 The money will be used to evaluate affected potable water systems and develop short-term treatment solutions. The treatment system is expected to be granulated activated carbon filters installed in the affected potable water systems to remove PFCs from drinking water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will meet with El Paso County Health, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Air Force Civil Engineer Center and water district representatives July 6 to determine the best course of action.  

Additionally, Peterson Air Force Base officials requested and received an expedited date for further investigation as a possible source of the chemicals. The site investigation contractor will arrive at Peterson July 7, to determine best locations to drill monitoring wells. The wells will determine source and extent of the contamination, if any is found. Drilling will begin in October 2016 and an internal draft report from the contractor is expected in March 2017. Soil samples will also be collected and sampled for PFCs to try and determine the source, according to Air Force Civil Engineer Center officials. The base was originally scheduled for further testing in May 2017, but testing was moved up to October 2016 based on the request.

 PFCs are a class of man-made chemicals used in many industrial and consumer products such as nonstick cookware, waterproof fabric and some food packaging. PFCs have been used for many years to make products that resist heat, stains, grease and water.

“We take environmental concerns seriously including those that could impact our neighbors and communities,” Gemeinhardt said. “We are fully cooperating in the investigation and want to help quickly find and resolve the matter.

“After a preliminary assessment was received in June, we requested follow-up testing be moved to the soonest date possible,” he said.

 Peterson AFB provides airport firefighting and emergency services to the city of Colorado Springs in exchange for leased property from the city, and are the first responders for any aircraft or medical emergency on airport property.

Peterson AFB used aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, in joint fire training on Peterson AFB, where fire departments from across the region used the training sites to adequately prepare for emergency response actions to provide public safety. The AFFF was used in a legal, responsible manner in full compliance with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines at the time.

An industry-standard fire suppressant used to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as jet fuel fires, the foam was used from 1970 until about 1990 when Peterson fire fighters began training in a lined basin using water to fight a controlled propane-fueled fire, which provides realistic firefighting conditions in an environmentally-safe and controlled manner. Since developing the new lined training area, AFFF has only been used in emergency response situations.

 “This is our home too. We have Airmen living all along the Front Range, including the Fountain, Widefield and Security area,” Gemeinhardt said, “so this is a very real concern for us.”

“We are working with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, El Paso County, the City of Colorado Springs, the Colorado Springs Airport, and other partners to determine the way ahead on this issue,” he said.

In addition to providing the filtration assistance and receiving an accelerated testing schedule, officials here are double checking aircraft hangar fire suppression systems for residual PFCs, and continuing the investigation into past PFC use at Peterson AFB. Fire officials here are also replacing their current stock of AFFF with a newer EPA-compliant synthetic foam.

 Various Air Force representatives, including wing leadership, civil and bioenvironmental engineers, will be at the El Paso County Public Health town hall meeting scheduled at 6 p.m. July 7 at the Mesa Ridge High School auditorium, to help answer questions about the investigation.