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Air Force reverses course, defends use of toxic firefighting foam and denies October spill

November 3, 2016 Updated: November 3, 2016 at 10:26 am
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photo - Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, answers questions while Col. Douglas Schiess, 21st Space Wing commander, listens during a press conference at Peterson Fire Station 1 addressing the water contamination problems from the use of firefighting foam containing perfluorooctanesulfonic and perfluorooctanoic acids Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, answers questions while Col. Douglas Schiess, 21st Space Wing commander, listens during a press conference at Peterson Fire Station 1 addressing the water contamination problems from the use of firefighting foam containing perfluorooctanesulfonic and perfluorooctanoic acids Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

A top Air Force official strongly defended the service's use of toxic firefighting foam Wednesday, saying airmen never "knowingly and intentionally" put the community at risk, despite Air Force studies dating to the 1970s that showed chemicals like those in the foam were harmful to laboratory animals.

Mark A. Correll, a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force overseeing environmental concerns, called the Air Force's studies "data points" and argued the Air Force had no reason to change its practices with the foam until the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health warning about perfluorinated compounds in the foam in May.

"We rely on agencies that do this for a living to give us answers," Correll said.

During a news conference, the Air Force also reversed course on its report of a 150,000-gallon release of firefighting foam-tainted water from a storage tank at Peterson Air Force Base, claiming miscommunication between engineers there made a 20,000-gallon evaporation look like a far larger discharge into a Colorado Springs Utilities sewer line. The service had called a news conference Oct. 18 to announce the unintended 150,000-gallon release.

Wednesday's news conference took some bizarre turns, with Correll at one point contending the service had never studied the harmful effects of its foam, a statement easily contradicted by the studies themselves. In a 1981 study, Air Force researchers said they were looking into the health impacts of "surfactant agent used in fire retardant foams by the Air Force."

Correll, citing the same 1981 study, claimed "there was no evidence he was looking at it from an (firefighting foam) standpoint." He later acknowledged he hadn't read the service's studies cover to cover.

The Wednesday news conference came 10 days after a Gazette investigation revealed decades of research from military scientists, including a string of Air Force studies, warning of the foam's danger. In 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers called for a ban on the foam's use at Fort Carson, citing environmental concerns. In 1997, the Corps issued a wider directive telling soldiers to treat the foam as a hazardous material that shouldn't be put down sewers.

"Unfortunately we may never know the exact details from 20-35 years ago of what every researcher was thinking when they did their research," Correll said. "But what I can tell you today is that the Air Force is moving aggressively with regard to (perfluorinated compounds)."

The chemicals in the foam caused alarm in Security, Widefield and Fountain this year after water customers were advised to quit drinking water from the Widefield Aquifer after the EPA tightened its guidance.

The EPA in May issued a health advisory for the compounds, which have been linked to maladies including cancer, kidney and liver ailments and high cholesterol. The agency set the safe level of the contaminants at 70 parts per trillion. Tests in the Widefield aquifer carried an average of 164 parts per trillion.

The Air Force used the foam in training at Peterson since the 1970s, spraying the foam on the ground in training and checks of firetrucks and discharging foam-tainted water from a fire training area containment tank into Colorado Springs sewers about three times a year. The Air Force on Wednesday said its Office of Special Investigations debunked Peterson's earlier report of the October release but admitted a similar incident in August.

Correll contended that the Air Force didn't know its firefighting foam was harmful until this year.

"What I would say is in the 1970s and throughout, until we got EPA guidance to the contrary, our belief was that (firefighting foam) was a benign substance that could be used with the exception of - to the extent that whatever the manufacturer recommended."

He claimed that consuming tainted water accounts for only 20 percent of human exposure to perfluorinated compounds. Scientists, though, say drinking tainted water is the most common method for Americans to be subjected to high doses of the chemical, which can stay in the blood for decades.

Correll also said the government is dealing with more chemicals than it can track.

"So remember there's 80,000 chemicals out there, only some of them have been looked at," he said. "So what do we do about those other 79,800?"

The dangers of perfluorinated compounds, though, have drawn scientific scrutiny since at least the 1960s and Air Force researchers began examining the health effects during the Carter administration.

The EPA called for a phaseout of the chemical 16 years ago and 10 years ago found the chemical in the foam "likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

Correll said the Air Force use of the toxic foam was driven by its effectiveness against fuel fires and said the service had no reason to move away from it until the EPA advisory this year. The Air Force now is removing 1,200 gallons of foam concentrate from Peterson, he said, and it will be incinerated to render it harmless.

"I rely on the EPA to tell me what I should do," he said.

Correll said the Air Force was also following the advice of other government agencies in its decision to not pay for blood tests on residents and airmen who have been exposed to the foam.

"At this point in time, they haven't recommended it as something that folks should do and consequently, the Air Force is not in a position to expend taxpayer dollars until we get a recommendation that that's something we should do," he said.

Experts in the field say the government is wrong to deny blood tests.

Everyone on the planet - even animals in the Arctic - have some perfluorinated compounds in their blood. The chemicals are so hardy and persistent that researchers say they're ubiquitous - contaminating everyone and everything a little bit.

But knowing if someone is above that baseline level is important, said Dr. Paul Brooks, a West Virginia physician who helped lead a study of 69,000 people into the effects of perfluorinated compounds.

"If it's in your blood, then you're at risk," Brooks said. "So the importance of a blood test is to know if it's in there or not."

He said that if you have only a minimum detectable level, "you feel fortunate."

Correll's repeated use of the phrase that the Air Force did not "knowingly and intentionally" subject its neighbors to health risks could have legal connotations. In Colorado courts, judges have ruled that government officials can be sued for "knowingly and intentionally" causing harm, lowering the wall of government immunity. In general, state court rules on liability are applied to federal lawsuits here.

Correll highlighted the Air Force's $4.3 million program to filter contaminated well water in the Pikes Peak region and said the service plans a similar effort across the nation for areas where the Air Force may have tainted wells. The national bill could easily top $200 million for filters and replacing the foam on bases with a less-hazardous version, he said.

Correll and other Air Force officials also met with El Paso County officials Wednesday, and local military leaders said they would be more transparent and offer more updates to residents.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller said the Air Force needs "to have accurate and timely data provided to the community," and he came away confident the military would provide that information.

"My only concern that way is understanding what that means," Waller said. "Is their definition of transparency different than mine? And I think we're going to have to work through that."

Waller, however, took issue with the Air Force minimizing its studies as "data points." If the EPA has to listen to its researchers, the military leaders should listen to theirs, he said.

"If those studies are data points, you shouldn't be able to blame it on the EPA," Waller said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter: @xroederx and @jakobrodgers

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