The Security Water District is negotiating with Colorado Springs Utilities to gain permanent access to more water from the Southern Delivery System. Earlier this year, the water district learned its wells were contaminated with industrial chemicals above the maximum levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In January, the Business Journal broke the news that water systems in Fountain, Security and Widefield were contaminated with perfluorinated compounds or PFCs — chemicals linked to cancer and endocrine disorders.
Fountain and Widefield curtailed use of their water wells until the Southern Delivery System came online this summer, and the two systems now use uncontaminated water from Pueblo Reservoir to serve their residents.
Security didn’t have that option — at least not as a permanent solution.
The Security district halted all use of well water this summer and has been paying for extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities in the months since.
“Obviously, when we were planning for SDS, we weren’t aware of the contamination,” said Roy Heald, water district manager. “So we didn’t obtain enough water from SDS to fully replace the well water. We’re now using more than our allocation when demand is high.”
To make sure it has enough water to meet summer demands, the district is negotiating with CSU for a long-term water allocation from SDS.
“We’re not using any well water right now,” Heald said. “And we won’t, until a solution is found to clean up the contamination.”
The district paid for water line extensions to the Southern Delivery System, and Heald is hoping that the Air Force — which acknowledged responsibility for the contamination through its use of firefighting foams at Peterson Air Force Base — will reimburse the district for the expense.
“We’ve asked for it,” he said. “But we haven’t gotten any money yet from the Air Force. We’ve filled out all the forms and made a formal request. We’re still waiting to hear if they’ll approve it. So far, we haven’t seen any of the $4.3 million the Air Force promised.”
Residents who own private wells to obtain their water are getting a response from the Air Force. The military is paying for water to be delivered in bulk to homes served by private wells — and is working to install under-the-sink, charcoal-activated filters as a permanent solution, said Danielle Oller, communications director for El Paso County Public Health.
The health department has tested 62 wells so far — of about 80 in the affected area — and found contamination levels higher than the EPA recommendations in 32 homes, she said.
Testing water wells is free to homeowners, and the health department is using grants from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to offset the cost of the $300 tests.
“We are continuing to test at no cost. If private-well owners haven’t gotten their wells tested, we are still doing that,” Oller said. “If you’re within the area of concern, we’ll test and the Air Force will respond with water and filters.”
Residents who need their private wells tested should call the health department at 719-575-8602.
WHAT ARE PFCS?
Perfluorinated compounds were developed by 3M in 1951. DuPont used them for decades to manufacture commercial products like Teflon and Scotchgard — and they’re found in the firefighting foam used by military firefighters at Air Force bases around the country.
Many of the PFCs are ubiquitous — the chemicals neither decay nor metabolize. Once ingested, they remain in systems indefinitely. PFCs have been found in bloodstreams of humans around the globe, polar bears in the Arctic and salmon caught in Alaska.
While industrial use of the PFCs has been curtailed, EPA testing in 2015 and 2016 found that 6.5 million Americans in 27 states were exposed to PFC-tainted drinking water. The chemicals have been found in 94 public water systems.
In El Paso County, about 70,000 customers were affected by the contamination — the EPA found more than 200 different PFC contaminants in 106 tested samples. The El Paso County contamination reached 1.3 parts per billion, among the highest levels of all water systems that showed evidence of PFC contamination.
In September, local class-action suits joined other class-action lawsuits in Ohio and West Virginia, claiming damages from contaminated water.
Hannon Law Firm, based in Denver, filed two suits in federal court for El Paso County residents. One complaint asks for medical monitoring, while the other seeks compensation for property damage. Both name 3M, Ansul and National Foam as defendants in the suits, instead of filing against the federal government or the Air Force for using the firefighting foam.
McDivitt Law Firm in Colorado Springs also filed a class-action suit on behalf of thousands of people whose water came from the contaminated aquifer. It also names the three chemical producers but adds Chemguard of Wisconsin, Angus Fire and Buckeye Fire Equipment Co.
In October, McDivitt called on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to pay to test the blood of residents in affected areas. Blood tests can cost up to $700 and health departments in other affected states have set up programs to test blood for the contaminants, according to reports from KRCC radio.
But in online fact sheets, the state’s health department said blood testing can determine the amounts of PFCs in the bloodstream, but cannot say for certain if health problems will result from exposure to the chemicals.
About six cases have been tried in Ohio — of about 3,500 — and so far, juries there have found in favor of local residents. Other class-action suits are wending their way through the court system.
Adding to the dilemma, officials at Peterson AFB announced in October that about 150,000 gallons of water contaminated with PFCs were discharged into the Colorado Springs sewer system, which flows into Fountain Creek.
The Air Force was holding the water in a storage tank, waiting for instructions on how to dispose of it properly. Instead, officials said, the water was released into the sewer system between Oct. 5 and Oct. 12.
Officials told KRCC that water from that section of Fountain Creek was not used for drinking water, but mostly went to agricultural uses, where the soil could filter out the chemical contaminants.