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Air Force officials say service has no authority to reimburse for toxic contamination of Colorado Springs-area groundwater

July 30, 2017 Updated: August 2, 2017 at 3:01 pm
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Caption +
Heather Drissel (back), an engineer with Colorado Water Quality Control Division goes over a map of the results of environmental water samples collected from groundwater or surface in the affected area with concerned residents, Merrilee McCoglan and Janet Bahner during an open house at the Janitell Junior High School on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Despite a new study's conclusion that toxic firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base potentially fouled drinking water in Security, Widefield and Fountain, Air Force officials have no plans to fully reimburse those communities for $6 million they've spent responding to the crisis.

More than 70 percent of those checks issued by those water districts to deal with toxic chemicals contaminating the Widefield Aquifer likely will not be reimbursed, Air Force officials signaled last week. And those uncompensated costs are expected to balloon, with the districts likely on the hook for $11 million of their $12.7 million response tab by the end of 2018.

Cornell Long, a chemist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, disputed the center's ability to reimburse communities for their costs, saying, "We don't back pay - we cannot reimburse."

A follow-up request by The Gazette for clarification on reimbursement was forwarded to Air Force lawyers, who had not responded Friday.

However, an email Friday from the center said, "The Air Force does not have the authority to reimburse communities for costs incurred in dealing with environmental contamination issues."

The assertion highlighted a singular theme accompanying the Air Force's new report on its role in the contamination. Despite more than a year having passed since the discovery, real answers about the toxic chemicals - their origin, their effect on residents' health and who should pay to remove them - are likely years away.

The Air Force has pledged $4.3 million in aid, much of which is undelivered.

Of that amount, only an estimated $1.7 million will go toward the utilities' big tab, a Gazette analysis found. Much of the rest is being spent on bottled water and filters.

Air Force Civil Engineer Center leaders said last week that they do not expect to implement a plan for remediation until the 2020s, although "interim measures" might come sooner.

Meanwhile, ratepayers' tabs are running.

"We really need financial help," said Roy Heald, Security Water and Sanitation Districts' manager. "We need to get going on those things before the 2020s."

On Tuesday, the Air Force held a private meeting for local officials to brief them on the new study, a news conference, and a community open house for residents. More studies will be forthcoming but not soon. Questions of additional financial aid or reimbursement for expenses incurred were left hanging.

A center spokesman stressed the agency is taking "very aggressive" steps across the Air Force to protect residents.

"The first commitment is to protect human health and the environment," said Mark Kinkade, an agency spokesman.

Not everyone is convinced.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, a former Air Force officer, fears local water districts will have borne the brunt of costs by the time Air Force leaders finish their studies, now scheduled to run well into 2019.

"That's not an excuse, I think, that should be used in order to end up not paying for these things," Waller said.

Carla Lucas, 67, who has lived in Security and drank its water for 45 years, is blunter.

"We have all this wonderful rich groundwater that we cannot use," Lucas said. "And we'll continue paying higher bills until the Air Force gets off their ass and pays to get it cleaned up."

Fountain officials, for example, have budgeted for the $4.2 million in fixes through 2018 necessary to remedy the problem there.

Widefield doesn't expect to raise rates, but Security does - a rate study is planned for this fall. Fountain raised rates 5.3 percent this year due primarily to the toxic chemicals.

The combined $12.7 million price tag through 2018 represents only part of the districts' expected cost of dealing with the contaminated water.

Widefield's long-term solution - a new water treatment plant to address its 10 affected wells - could double that price tag, with a projected cost of $10 million to $12 million, said Brandon Bernard, Widefield Water and Sanitation District's water manager. That's on top of $2.5 million expected to be spent by the end of 2018.

Security's costs are expected to rise from about $3.6 million to about $5 million by the end of the year, said Heald, the Security district's manager. It also must construct a plant, which could cost $5 million to $10 million. And it's still paying a premium to Colorado Springs Utilities for some of its uncontaminated water, with additional water purchases costing about $1 million a year.

As a result, Security likely must delay maintenance on its existing system, Heald said.

None of that, however, includes the cost of cleaning up the source of those toxic chemicals - a figure for which there are no current estimates, or even a plan.

The Air Force spent about $400,000 on the site inspection report released Tuesday, which was criticized by local elected officials for its limited scope.

Another, more costly study will begin this fall to better understand how groundwater moves beneath the base. Then it plans to begin another study - likely in spring 2019 - on its options for fixing the contamination. But Congress has yet to green-light that money.

Air Force leaders left the door open last week for additional aid, but said that could be years away.

So far, the Air Force has only accepted potential blame, saying in its report Tuesday that it will proceed "as other potential contributors are investigated," adding that other sources "likely" contributed to the aquifer's contamination. No other definitive sources, however, have been publicly identified.

Water from the base likely flows off it - researchers just don't understand exactly how, said Long, who heads the engineer center's perfluorinated compound team.

Several of their drill sites over the past year on Colorado Springs Airport property - including at an airport parking lot that once hosted a former fire training site - yielded mixed results, Long said. Some places he expected to register hot for perfluorinated compounds came up clean.

"We don't think we've punched enough holes in the ground to find reliable groundwater that's going off base," Long said.

No question exists about whether the toxic chemicals in Peterson's firefighting foam made it into the base's soil and groundwater.

At the base's current firefighting training pit, investigators found the toxic chemicals at concentrations more than 1,250 times the level that Environmental Protection Agency officials say can cause health ailments with prolonged exposure.

The pit had a plastic liner, and investigators blamed the contamination on "overspray" with the foam.

A soil sample elsewhere on the base measured the chemical at 240,000 parts per trillion - far above the EPA's lifetime health advisory level of 70 ppt.

Base officials also flushed chemical-saturated wastewater from a training area into Utilities' sewers - proving a straight-line path into the aquifer.

That's too much evidence for the Air Force not to act, said state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.

"There's no community in the United States that's more supportive of the military than Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security, Widefield - all of El Paso County. None," Gardner said. "And because of that, there's a large reservoir of patience."

But he fears that goodwill drying up as ratepayers' bills rack up.

"That needs to be compensated," he said. "And the military needs to go ahead and step up and not study and study and study."

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