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Peterson Air Force Base discovers discharge of water with toxic firefighting chemicals

October 18, 2016 Updated: October 19, 2016 at 6:24 am
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Environmental Chief Fred Brooks discusses the unplanned water discharge from a Peterson fire training area during a press conference outside the Peterson Air Force Base on Tuesday, October 18, 2016. About 150,000 gallons of water being held in a fire training area retention tank was discharged into the CSU sewer system last week. The tank held water that contained an elevated level of perfluorinated compounds, a residual component of a firefighting foam historically used at the base for emergency response. Peterson authorities discovered the discharge during a routine tank inspection on October 12. The tank is part of a system used to recirculate water to the fire training area. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

More than 150,000 gallons of water tainted with toxic Air Force firefighting chemicals was released into the Colorado Springs Utilities sewer system last week, Peterson Air Force Base confirmed Tuesday.

The release came from a holding tank that was designed to corral the firefighting chemicals at a Peterson training area.

The base's use of the firefighting foam containing the chemical is a key suspect in the contamination of wells in Security, Widefield and Fountain that left thousands of residents scrambling for bottled water.

The release last week posed no threat to Colorado Springs drinking water.

The base said the release was discovered Oct. 12. The cause hasn't been determined, but Fred Brooks, Peterson's environmental chief, said the holding tank was designed to be difficult to discharge.

"It's not a direct connection," Brooks said. "This tank would have to have numerous valves switched to actually discharge."

Was it intentional?

"That's a possibility," Brooks said.

The chemical in the water is a perfluorinated compound, a substance that the Environmental Protection Agency warns can cause ailments including liver and kidney damage and may trigger cancer. The EPA adjusted its maximum safe exposure to the chemical in water to 70 parts per trillion just this year. Testing on the Widefield Aquifer found levels as high as 2,000 parts per trillion.

An investigation has been opened to determine the cause of the discharge, said Col. Doug Schiess, who commands Peterson's 21st Space Wing, in the statement.

Colorado Springs Utilities said the chemical-laden water passed through the utility's Las Vegas Street sewage treatment plant and was released into Fountain Creek. The plant does not have the capacity to remove the chemical.

PETERSON PRESS CONFERENCE
The tank that resulted in the unplanned water discharge from a Peterson fire training area during a press conference outside the Peterson Air Force Base on Tuesday, October 18, 2016. About 150,000 gallons of water being held in a fire training area retention tank was discharged into the CSU sewer system last week. The dome shaped tank in the center of this photo held water that contained an elevated level of perfluorinated compounds, a residual component of a firefighting foam historically used at the base for emergency response. Peterson authorities discovered the discharge during a routine tank inspection on October 12. The tank is part of a system used to recirculate water to the fire training area. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette 

"There was no risk to the drinking water," said Steve Berry, a Utilities spokesman. "This did not impact the drinking water, the finished water system, in any way. It went directly into the wastewater system."

While Peterson notified Colorado Springs, base officials didn't warn others downstream. Brooks said the base isn't required to issue a wider notification, noting that the chemical is "unregulated" - a term used for substances that haven't drawn enforceable drinking water standards.

The new spill left Mary Fletcher, who has lived in the Widefield area for 30 years, with a sense of resignation.

She called the toxic chemicals in her tap water a "pain in the ass," saying the latest spill is "unbelievable."

"What do you do?" Fletcher said. "As a homeowner, this is your whole world right here, and now all of your water's screwed up. What do you do? It's absolutely terrible."

Fletcher, 59, lives along Southmoor Drive - an area long exposed to the chemicals, and that still receives fouled tap water, according to a state health department map. She has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and she wonders whether the water caused it.

Peterson had scheduled a public firefighting demonstration on Oct. 12, the day the discharge was discovered. The fire training exercise was canceled, with a spokesman at the base blaming the delay on a "bad valve"

Brooks, the base environmental officer, said two mechanical valves and an electric one must be switched to allow water to flow out of the tank, which held the outflow from fire training exercises dating back as far as 2013.

He said the water wasn't tested for levels of the firefighting chemical.

A second tank on the base holding fire training residue wasn't discharged.

The Air Force banned use of the foam outside fire emergencies last year and last month announced a plan to replace the product at all of its bases around the globe. Brooks said the foam at Peterson will be replaced in about two weeks.

The water contamination in Security, Widefield and Fountain has drawn a pair of lawsuits against the manufacturers of the firefighting foam alleging they sold it to the Air Force despite its toxic risks.

Although downstream, no drinking water supplied to Pueblo residents by the Pueblo Board of Water Works comes from Fountain Creek, said Paul Fanning, the agency's spokesman. The Pueblo Reservoir does not pull from Fountain Creek.

The Widefield Water and Sanitation District is the only water system immediately downstream of the treatment plant now using the Widefield Aquifer, which leaches water from Fountain Creek, where the chemicals flowed.

Widefield officials have previously said they plan to shut off their wells by sometime in October.

Other communities have shut off their wells to the tainted aquifer.

All the water flowing to homes supplied by the Security and Fountain water systems now comes from the Pueblo Reservoir - meaning that last week's spill should not affect those communities.

"The long-term effects would be concerning," said Roy Heald, Security water district's general manager. "But short-term immediate effects - there wouldn't be any for us."

The EPA said it wasn't involved with the spill.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment gave the Air Force a vote of confidence despite the chemical discharge.

"The Air Force has demonstrated its commitment to identifying and addressing (perfluorinated compound) contamination at Peterson Air Force Base and facilities nationwide," the state agency said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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