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Water districts charge ahead on contamination fixes, while waiting for Air Force to pony up

May 20, 2017 Updated: May 22, 2017 at 11:34 am
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photo - A crew drills a new well Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at the Southmoor Water Treatment Plant for the Widefield Water and Sanitation District. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
A crew drills a new well Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at the Southmoor Water Treatment Plant for the Widefield Water and Sanitation District. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

The water flowing into Bridgette Swaney's home no longer threatens to cause cancer or weaken her immune system.

But that doesn't mean she'll drink it.

"Now the water tastes like chlorine instead of something else, so I don't know," Swaney said.

For the first time in possibly decades, summer will arrive in southern El Paso County without most residents being exposed to toxic tap water from their faucets.

Security, Widefield and Fountain water leaders made immense gains over the past year improving the region's water quality. The number of people exposed to a class of likely carcinogenic chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds has dropped from tens of thousands to a couple of hundred. And some of residents' worst fears - a plummeting housing market, for example - have yet to materialize.

The PFCs, as they are called, have been linked to Peterson Air Force Base's toxic firefighting foam. Experts theorize that repeated training exercises with the foam over the years resulted in groundwater contamination, and a Gazette investigation last fall found the Air Force ignored decades of warnings from its researchers about the dangers posed by PFCs.

The EPA and a leading manufacturer of the chemical, 3M, also had long-held concerns about its safety, and the manufacturer and other companies have faced lawsuits from local residents about it.

The Air Force has since moved away from the toxic foam and shipped most of its remaining stock off for incineration.

But one year after new federal guidelines showed water coming from the Widefield aquifer to be unsafe, some water district leaders are expressing polite disappointment about the Air Force's plodding response to the crisis.

And a mix of frustration, mistrust and weary indifference continues to linger among water customers.

Many people still rely on bottled water.

Several filters supplied by the military have yet to be installed - leaving at least one water district racing to complete the job before water usage rises this summer and they're forced to pull well water from the fouled aquifer.

Customers also remain on the hook for construction projects aimed at keeping the dangerous chemicals at bay. Millions of dollars has been spent so far by water districts, and millions more will be needed to construct lasting solutions.

And reimbursement checks from the Air Force - while yet to be issued - are unlikely to cover all of those costs, local water district officials say.

"I'm disappointed that we haven't been reimbursed yet," said Roy Heald, Security Water and Sanitation Districts' general manager, adding he was surprised it has taken so long.

"We appreciate the help we could get from the Air Force," he added. "I just hope that ultimately they do deliver what they promised back in July and they continue to be good neighbors and that they see this through."

Air Force defends response

Officials at Peterson Air Force Base wouldn't answer questions about the polluted water and Air Force efforts to help local water districts. They referred all inquiries to the Texas-based Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which answered questions by email Friday.

The center touted a $4.3 million commitment to filter water for residents announced last summer. Filters for Fountain customers will arrive in June or July, and Stratmoor Hills will get a water filter by the end of the month, the Air Force said.

Security Mobile Home Park will get a new filter system, too, the center said, along with dozens of private well owners.

Widefield residents are receiving groundwater treated with a first-of-its-kind treatment system for perfluorinated compounds. Security water customers are now getting water from new pipes that draw from uncontaminated sources, namely the Pueblo Reservoir.

"Surface water is flowing, and the Air Force is working to provide the funds we initially planned for (filter) units," spokesman Mark Kinkade said in the email.

The Air Force has pledged to release results of an internal study into water contamination at the base in eastern Colorado Springs.

Test wells for the study were drilled last fall, but the service has said it won't make results of its study public until July.

A new, expanded study of contamination from Peterson could start this fall, if more funding is approved.

While waiting for the filters the Air Force has promised, Security Mobile Home Park, home to about 150 people, continues to operate a well tied directly to the aquifer.

Several residents there shrugged at having to stop using their kitchen faucets - having been won over by free bottled water paid for by the Air Force.

"This is a little inconvenient, but that doesn't bother me at all," said Irene Meeks, 71. "Just have to take it the way it comes. There's nothing really we can do about it."

Her attitude is indicative of many people here, who sense life returning to normal now that clean water is arriving to their taps.

Days after leading his congregation on a visit to Flint, Mich., to help residents there whose water was contaminated by lead, Pastor Kevin Troy Daniels Sr. learned the water in his own Widefield church was saturated with a toxic chemical, PFCs.

"We were preparing for the worst of it," Daniels said.

The church paid nearly $5,500 for a reverse osmosis filter to make its water usable again. It has been working through the Air Force's red tape to get reimbursed.

Daniels voiced no qualms about having to wait for a check.

"I'm not sure if those people have any military experience," Daniels said. "We know that, listen, some things just don't happen overnight."

Multiple health concerns

In Security, Sadie Brunfeldt, 34, lamented the fast-evaporating concern by people in her community about a chemical that remains in the body for years once ingested - leaving affected households at continuing risk.

"Unfortunately, I think a lot of people have just moved on," she said. "It's not something you can see in the water. It's not something you can smell in the water."

For her part, she has continued drinking bottled water despite her water provider, Security Water and Sanitation Districts, having paid a premium to Colorado Springs Utilities for uncontaminated water from the Pueblo Reservoir.

She predicted the furor will return when water rates increase to pay for mitigation work. "Unfortunately, the local residents here will end up footing the bill."

The crisis emerged in early 2016 when water tests mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency showed potentially dangerous levels of perfluorinated compounds throughout the Widefield aquifer.

The man-made compounds are found in Teflon coatings, fast-food containers and carpet sealants, but water contamination around the nation has been tied to military use of the chemicals.

For years, Peterson Air Force Base officials flushed water contaminated by its firefighting foam into Colorado Springs' sewer system. Treatment plants aren't equipped to cleanse perfluorinated compounds from water, so the fouled effluent flowed into Fountain Creek and eventually the aquifer.

Local water districts kept the issue at bay by diluting aquifer water with chemical-free water from the Pueblo Reservoir.

But that changed May 19, 2016, when the EPA tightened its advisory on the chemicals from as much as 600 parts per trillion to 70.

Overnight, the safety of households across western portions of Security and Widefield were called into question, and Fountain instituted watering restrictions to avoid exposure.

No longer could water officials dilute their water enough.

Health officials have recommended people - especially infants and mothers who are nursing, pregnant or planning to become pregnant - seek other sources of water.

Their fears stemmed from studies showing the chemical weakening human and animal immune systems.

Researchers have linked it to certain cancers - often of the kidneys and testicles - along with fetal development problems and low birth weight. Liver damage, thyroid issues and high cholesterol are also possible links.

Once consumed, the perfluorinated compounds can stay in the body for decades, researchers say.

Still, it remains unregulated to the extent of lead, arsenic and a host of other toxins.

The agency has only issued health advisories warning against yearslong exposure.

State and local public health officials say they are largely in a holding pattern until the Air Force releases its site inspection in July.

Local districts take charge

Meanwhile, local water district leaders opted to take matters into their own hands, even though no federal mandates required they do anything to rid the water of such chemicals. They completed projects with uncanny speed - choosing to take Air Force officials at their word that they'd be at least partially reimbursed.

For many residents, the crisis validated decadeslong avoidance of the water, particularly after carcinogens from the nearby Schlage Lock plant polluted the aquifer as far back as the 1970s. It has since been remediated.

Swaney - who drank tap water for years and now questions whether the latest chemical caused illnesses in her family and pets - views the crisis as anything but resolved.

She reluctantly began using her kitchen faucet over the winter after her water provider, Widefield Water and Sanitation District, announced it had switched water sources.

But she swore off the water once more after district leaders recently restarted wells plugged into the aquifer - even though they treated it.

"It's all about mistrust," she said.

From her home off Southmoor Drive, Swaney watched Widefield water district's wellhead across the street transform into a high-tech science project for removing those chemicals from drinking water.

There, specialized resin beads in four massive tanks react with contaminants on a molecular level to scrub them from the water.

Widefield officials tout the ion exchange treatment system - budgeted at $2.5 million - as the nation's first using such specialized resin balls to remove perfluorinated compounds from the water.

The district started pumping treated water into homes May 4.

It's still awaiting test results to confirm it successfully removed the chemicals, though the district's water manager, Brandon Bernard, is "100 percent" confident it works.

Swaney won't pour herself a glass until she sees the results.

"How can they release something saying everything's great when they don't know?" she said.

Neither Fountain nor Security has pumped this year from the aquifer.

Security Water and Sanitation Districts also decided against receiving Air Force filters in favor of pipeline projects allowing it to get more clean water from Pueblo.

The most recent piping project was completed this week, said Heald, the district's general manager. With that, the district should make it through the summer with enough Pueblo Reservoir water to avoid pumping from the fouled aquifer, he said.

"The water we provide is top quality - it's the same thing that Colorado Springs gets now," Heald said. "And it's high mountain water; some of it's first-use water. It's really good stuff."

All the while, the tab likely footed by ratepayers keeps adding up.

Heald expects the district to have blown through 30 percent to 40 percent of its reserves by year's end. It has spent about $3 million so far to build the pipes and buy water from Colorado Springs Utilities. And he expects to buy $1 million more in water this year.

"The bills are coming in on a daily basis," he said. "We can't do this forever - something's got to give."

Fountain - which hasn't used the fouled aquifer since October 2015 - took the Air Force up on its offer for two traditional granular activated carbon filters.

They've yet to be delivered - highlighting the pace of military bureaucracy.

"We've been patient with them and wish that we were two months ahead of where we are," said Curtis Mitchell, Fountain's utilities director. "But we are where we are."

The military will pay for the filters, but Fountain must pay for everything else - including foundations for the filters and plumbing the filters into their system.

The city also must construct 11-foot-tall buildings around the filters for more than $100,000 per unit.

He's anxious for the Air Force to reveal its five-year plan to mitigate the water contamination, which Peterson officials vowed to create a few months ago.

"I still think that we have what I think is a reasonable expectation that we will get some financial assistance," Mitchell said. "That's what I've communicated to the congressmen, to the senators - that this a hardship on our communities."

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