It now appears that chemical pollution from U.S. Air Force bases is a nationwide problem, and one that is likely to bedevil the Department of Defense for many years.

While Colorado regulatory authorities have so far been conciliatory and cooperative in their interactions with Peterson Air Force Base, at least one other state has taken a far more aggressive approach.

Last Friday, New York State environmental officials demanded that the Department of Defense immediately take full responsibility for pollution of drinking water in Newburgh, N.Y., contending that the pollution was caused by the use of firefighting foam at a local base.

“D.E.C. [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation] seeks an immediate commitment from D.O.D. to commence and expeditiously undertake necessary site work,” said a letter released Friday.

The Defense Department has yet to respond, but Newberg’s problems could be replicated in scores, even hundreds of locations.

Perfluorinated chemicals linked to firefighting foams have been found in 30 water systems in California’s East Bay area, and have been detected in groundwater near dozens of Air Force bases nationwide — including three systems near Peterson Air Force Base.

- Advertisement -

So far, DoD and Air Force officials have dealt with such contamination with a case-by-case strategy. They’ve announced their willingness to work with affected communities, and have made payments in several cases. In Colorado, they’re spending $4.3 million to help fix the chemical contamination in the Security, Widefield and Fountain systems.

That strategy of localization may not work much longer if New York’s aggressive approach pays dividends.

PFCs in Colorado Springs

Residents of Fountain, Security and Widefield were dismayed and angry when the Business Journal reported in January that their drinking water was contaminated with perfluorinated substances, toxic byproducts of common industrial processes.

While downplaying concerns that the contamination posed any danger to public health, the three water providers joined with El Paso County Public Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment to investigate the problem.

The three government agencies quickly issued a joint statement meant to reassure residents of the three communities. The statement noted that certain wells in the interconnected systems showed contaminant levels slightly above the EPA’s recommended maximum levels in a 2009 “provisional health advisory.” Since water from those wells was diluted with water from other sources before reaching customers, there was no apparent danger to public health.

CDPHE nevertheless launched an effort to determine the origin of the contamination. In retrospect, it seems apparent that the agency was aware of the growing pressure for the EPA to revise its health advisory and recommend lower maximum contaminant levels.

Scientists worldwide have long called for a total ban on industrial or governmental use of long-chain perfluorinated chemicals. While such substances are no longer manufactured in America, countries like China continue to produce them. Originally created by 3M in 1949, these chemicals have been used in the production of Teflon, Scotchgard, firefighting foam, stain-resistant carpets, run-resistant mascara and dozens of other products.

The problem: These chemicals are both highly toxic in small amounts and extremely persistent in the environment. Scientific studies beginning in 1961 have linked PFAs to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disruption, lower birth weight and size, liver malfunction and hormonal disorders. On May 1, 2015, more than 200 scientists from 38 countries signed the Madrid Statement, calling for a complete worldwide ban on the production of PFAs of all kinds.

Industrial users have long opposed such a ban, arguing that PFAs are not as toxic as the studies indicate and that long-chain PFAs are being phased out voluntarily.

The argument continues, but the EPA brought new clarity to the discussion on May 19 of this year.

The agency issued a new lifetime health advisory that replaced the 2009 provisional advisory, “based on the agency’s assessment of the latest peer-reviewed science.” Recommended “lifetime exposure limits” for two ubiquitous PFAs in drinking water were lowered from 400 parts per trillion to 70 ppt.

That action transformed a minor problem into a full-blown crisis for water providers and state regulatory authorities. Thousands of concerned residents attended a July 7 meeting at Mesa Ridge High School to listen to presentations from EPA, CDPHE, the Air Force, EPCPH and the three water providers.

In a surprising development, the Air Force made the “good neighbor” grant to the water providers to help solve the problem.

Although the Air Force did not specifically take responsibility for the contamination, it appears highly likely that PFAs in aqueous film-forming foams used in firefighting exercises at Peterson AFB migrated into the Widefield aquifer, causing the pollution.