The Air Force plans to pay $4.3 million to begin treating water in Security, Widefield and Fountain amid the revelation that toxic chemicals contaminating groundwater for those communities possibly came from Peterson Air Force Base.
The Air Force's announcement Tuesday offered a possible stop-gap solution to a problem that local water district managers say may take years to permanently fix, and it comes as residents there flock to purchase bottled water.
The chemicals, called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, "possibly" came from Peterson Air Force Base, where firefighters used a foam rich in those chemicals for decades to put out aircraft fires, said Steve Brady, a spokesman for the base's 21st Space Wing.
Base officials decided to expedite in-depth testing to pinpoint the source of the contaminants after a preliminary report in June suggested the installation as a possible source.
Testing wells will be drilled starting in October - seven months ahead of schedule - and an internal draft report is due in March 2017, base officials said in a statement.
In the meantime, the Air Force will pay to install filters cleansing well water of the contaminants.
Brady characterized the step as "a proactive measure," even as the exact source of the toxic chemicals remains under investigation.
"Until we've finished the investigation to determine the source, we're just trying to help out the local community as a good neighbor," Brady said.
The Air Force expects to install granular activated carbon filters - devices that can filter PFCs from the water, Air Force officials said.
The devices are positioned at or near well heads, filtering water as it is pumped from the ground. Doing so would allow local water districts to once again rely more heavily on the Widefield aquifer - a vital water source for each community.
Still, the development appears unlikely to help residents for much of the rest of this summer, due to the time needed for installation, said Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
"This will just help solidify not having a concern next summer and in years to come," Heald said.
Once installed, local water officials said the project could help keep residents from receiving water laden with PFCs, which have been linked to low birth weights in newborns or certain cancers.
The chemicals aren't regulated, but the Environmental Protection Agency still sets baseline levels at which the public must be notified about potential health effects.
In May, the EPA lowered its baseline level to 70 parts per trillion, and the EPA said adverse health effects might happen after prolonged use.
All public wells for the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts tested above the new health advisory levels - leaving local water officials scrambling to minimize exposure.
Fountain shut down all of its wells, and it has only used clean surface water from the Pueblo Reservoir to keep people from drinking contaminated water from the aquifer.
Its reliance on surface water has essentially left the city running at 80-percent capacity - a move its been able to achieve so far, due to mandatory watering restrictions, said Curtis Mitchell, the city's utilities director.
The situation appears most urgent in Security and Widefield, where water districts still use contaminated wells to meet demand.
Officials for those two water districts have been diluting that contaminated water with surface water from the Pueblo Reservoir, limiting the number of residents exposed.
The Security Water and Sanitation Districts' tactic could cause water rates to rise in the future, Heald said. It has instituted voluntary watering restrictions to limit water use - tamping down costs and limiting the need for well water.
Meanwhile, the Widefield Water and Sanitation District is on track to run out of clean surface water by sometime in November, said Brandon Bernard, its water department manager. At that point, every resident in the district would receive chemicals in their tap water, because it would have to rely solely on contaminated well water.
For now, the areas most often receiving contaminated tap water are those in the western portions of Security and Widefield.
Infants, pregnant and nursing women and women planning to become pregnant who live in affected areas may want to switch to bottled or treated water, health officials say.
The Air Force is working with the Army Corps of Engineers' "rapid response group," which plans to conduct a site visit Wednesday in the Pikes Peak region, said Tom Zink, who is the Corps' Air Force national program manager for environmental support.
The visit also will focus on private wells, Zink said.
So far, 26 private wells tapped into the Widefield aquifer have tested above the EPA's new levels, according Danielle Oller, an El Paso County Public Health spokeswoman. That equates to slightly more than half of the wells tested so far.
The aquifer stretches from Stratton Meadows area to Fountain and extends east to the Colorado Springs Airport.
"It's great that they're being proactive," Mitchell said.
Perfluorinated compounds have been used for decades on a variety of things, including Teflon products and food wrappers, as well as chemicals used to protecting carpets and clothing.
Such PFCs also were used in firefighting foams that proved effective against hard-to-extinguish fires, such as those fueled by jet fuel.
The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Peterson Air Force Base was among 664 military sites across the nation due to be examined for the presence of PFCs. Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy also were on the list.
At Peterson Air Force Base, firefighters used the foam during training exercises from 1970 through about 1990, base officials said in a statement Tuesday.
The training site also was used by fire departments across the region, and it was in compliance with EPA standards at the time, the installation's statement said.
Since roughly 1990, firefighters have trained in a lined basin using water and fighting flames fueled by a special propane system - not jet fuel. Since then, the foam has only used "in emergency response situations," the base said.
Base officials said they are replacing their stock of firefighting foam with a new, EPA-compliant variety, and they are double-checking aircraft hangar fire suppression systems for residual chemicals.
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