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Air Force commits to 5-year plan to clear contaminated Widefield aquifer

February 2, 2017 Updated: February 3, 2017 at 6:24 am
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Bridgette Swaney and her daughter, Addison, 4, use the last of their bottled water to make mint tea at their Widefield home Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. High levels of perfluorinated compounds, believed to be from a firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base, have been found in the water systems of Security, Widefield and Fountain, forcing residents to drink bottled water. Swaney worries about the toxic chemicals that have been associated with kidney and testicular cancer as well as thyroid disease. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

An Air Force official revealed to the county commissioners on Thursday that the service has a five-year plan to mitigate water contamination that recently had southern El Paso County residents searching for clean water sources after wells in Security, Widefield and Fountain were tainted by perfluorinated compounds from toxic firefighting foam.

While Col. Doug Schiess, commander of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, wouldn't elaborate on details of the five-year plan, he said information about an internal Air Force report would be released in late June or early July.

The Air Force used firefighting foam at the base for decades that contained perfluorinated compounds. High quantities of the chemical in drinking water from the Widefield Aquifer triggered an EPA advisory last spring.

A Gazette investigation in October revealed that the service kept the foam in use despite Defense Department studies over the years that showed it was harmful to laboratory animals.

Commissioners Longinos Gonzalez and Mark Waller pressed Schiess to reveal how much the mitigation work would cost and who would pay the bill if more contamination was found after the five-year time frame.

"That will be done at a much higher level in the Air Force," Schiess said, when asked if the reclamation funds were readily available now. "They know that that is a big bill and they have put some money aside. That is being budgeted, but I don't have details."

Gonzalez, who represents the southern part of the county, has concerns about future contamination because temporary solutions that have been implemented involve installing filters in homes, at water district pumping stations and at local businesses.

"They're going to clean water as it comes out of the well," he said. "They don't clean the aquifers."

Schiess said the five-year plan will ensure that the ground near Peterson and at the Colorado Springs Airport is free of perflourinated compounds. When ingested, the chemicals can remain in the body for decades. The colonel said natural, untainted runoff will eventually dilute the watershed and bring it up to Environmental Protection Agency standards for safe water.

"Once we take care of those (existing PFC contaminates), they will not be getting into the groundwater," he said.

However, residents of the Widefield, Security and Fountain areas who have been affected by the contamination say they don't want to wait five years to feel safe drinking and bathing in the water.

Gretchen Baker, the executive director of the Connections 4 Life food pantry that has served the Security-Widefield area for 17 years, said she has been buying bottled water so her volunteers and others can stay hydrated. Baker added that she has a filtration system at home and brings water in for the pantry to use for cooking.

"I'm thinking that five years is an awfully long time to wait to take a drink out of the tap," Baker said.

When asked how using bottled water has impacted the nonprofit's budget, Baker said, "If we're buying the bottled water it would hit our budget. But we're greatly blessed. We have been getting water donations."

Baker said when the water crisis struck southern El Paso County in 2016, a local church brought in semi truckloads of bottled water to hand out.

"The lines were unbelievable," she said. "They could empty a truck in 20 to 30 minutes."

Perfluorinated chemicals have been used in nonstick pans, in stain-resistant treatments for carpet and even in fast-food containers for decades.

Air Force studies done as early as 1979 revealed that the perfluorinated chemical in its firefighting foam caused liver damage, cellular damage and low birth weight to laboratory animals. It has also been tagged as a potential carcinogen.

Last year, EPA lowered its health advisory levels for perfluorinated compounds to 70 parts per trillion, changing the status of some wells that had been previously deemed safe.

On Thursday, Schiess said that the internal draft report about the contamination in southern El Paso County will likely be completed by the contractor in March. The Air Force will send its final report to the EPA in late April. And that information will be ready for public consumption in June or July, he said.

Schiess also brought the commissioners up to date on interim efforts to treat drinking water using filters for homes and businesses.

He said the Air Force had contacted about two dozen residents who had been using bottled water in their homes. According to the colonel, six homeowners declined offers to install reverse osmosis filtration systems, and four have had those measures implemented.

Schiess said the Fountain Valley Shopping Center is still using bottled water and others, such as Venetucci Farm and the Norad View Mobile Home Park are using granular activated carbon filters.

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