The Air Force on Tuesday acknowledged potential guilt in fouling the drinking water of thousands of its neighbors but offered no apology and said work on a federal remediation plan likely would not begin until sometime in the 2020s.
In a first-of-its-kind admission for the service, Air Force investigators confirmed that toxic firefighting foam chemicals used at Peterson Air Force Base had leached into the surrounding groundwater. To fix the problem, Air Force officials are proceeding under a process similar to the federal Superfund program - a yearslong procedure for cleaning up complex environmental contamination. No Superfund designation, however, has been made.
The findings were outlined in a report unveiled Tuesday that examined dozens of soil and water tests over the last year at the east Colorado Springs base.
Over and over, investigators for the report issued the same warning: "There is the potential for a complete groundwater pathway for human receptors."
At a news conference later Tuesday, Air Force Col. Todd Moore gave no apology but framed the report as an attempt to be transparent about what had transpired in decades of training with the foam. He vowed to cooperate with the community in finding a solution.
"There's still more to learn," Moore said.
A final determination about what needs to be done probably won't come until the completion of another study, which won't begin until 2019 and still needs congressional approval for funding, said Cornell Long, of the Air Force Civil Engineering Center in San Antonio.
Federal remediation work will push into the next decade, he added, though some help may arrive before then.
"There could be points where you take interim measures," he said.
Several local elected and water officials expressed disappointment Tuesday at the prospect of a years-long wait for help.
Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega left a closed-door briefing with Air Force and other local officials "frustrated" that Peterson's latest investigation didn't appear to be all-encompassing.
He said Air Force officials gave him no clear indication of when they would send the $4.3 million in aid promised last year. Nor did they say whether the service would offer more financial aid to communities burdened with the tainted water, he added.
"They need to step up," Ortega said. "They created a problem; now we have to deal with it."
Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn vowed action after the report's release and called for more money to clean up the contamination and test those affected by toxic water for health impacts.
"The people of the surrounding communities are patriotic Americans who will do whatever they can to help our national defense," Lamborn said in a statement. "But they should not be called upon to suffer needless environmental burdens."
He is backing a House defense-spending plan that includes $30 million next year to deal with contamination from the firefighting foam nationwide.
Decades of warnings
The findings come as military officials grapple with the contamination sites across the nation, despite decades of research on the risks posed by chemicals in the foam.
A Gazette investigation last fall revealed a string of Air Force studies and other military research dating to the late 1970s that warned that the chemicals - known as perfluorinated compounds - were linked to ailments in laboratory animals including cancer, liver disease and low infant birth weight, a leading cause of infant mortality.
Tuesday's report detailed several sites where Peterson firefighters sprayed the toxic foam directly on the ground since the 1970s.
The contamination appeared worst in the base's current firefighting training pit, which had a plastic liner designed to guard against leaching.
The cause: "Overspray" from firefighters, investigators said.
The chemicals there measured at about 88,000 parts per trillion - several thousand times the Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
But the report gave only passing mention to a central path for such chemicals to reach the aquifer.
Investigators admitted pumping contaminated waste into Colorado Springs sewers, but they downplayed that as a contributor to toxic drinking water.
"The holding tank is occasionally drained into the sanitary sewer system, but such events are rare," the report said, adding each release totaled 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of chemical-laden wastewater.
That admission was in stark contrast to previous statements by Peterson officials.
Last year, base leaders acknowledged pumping foam-tainted water from the lined fire pit, storing it in a nearby tank and dumping it about three times a year into Colorado Springs sewers.
The years-long practice likely made it easy for the chemicals to flood the nearby Widefield Aquifer.
That's because the chemicals are not removed while passing through the Colorado Springs Utilities' treatment plant. From there, the plant feeds into Fountain Creek - the aquifer's primary water source.
The last such publicly acknowledged wastewater release from the base happened last August, and Air Force officials said Tuesday they capped the route leading to the city's sewer system.
Colorado Springs Utilities has no records of ever authorizing the Air Force to release the chemical-laden wastewater into its sewer system, and its leaders have told Peterson officials not to do so, said Steve Berry, a Utilities spokesman.
Berry said it is "possible" that Utilities permitted such releases years ago, when the science surrounding these chemicals was "incomplete or unknown."
The releases weren't included in Tuesday's study, because the investigation only planned to look at on-base contamination sites, Long said. Instead, the wastewater discharges will be in the follow-up investigation slated to begin in 2019.
The latest report also failed to mention the toxic firefighting foam's use inside a half-dozen hangars at Peterson.
An earlier report said investigation wasn't required for the hangars because the toxic foam was routed into city sewers.
Ratepayers may be on hook
The report comes more than a year into a water crisis that sent thousands of people rushing to buy bottled water in 2016 while their water districts spent millions of dollars to rid their drinking water of the chemicals.
Local water officials since have turned to new water sources or have installed new treatment systems to remove the toxic chemicals from the Widefield Aquifer water. But some water district leaders have criticized the Air Force's plodding response, and millions of dollars in help pledged by the Air Force has yet to arrive in the coffers of local water districts. Ratepayers also may be on the hook for many of those fixes, because remediation costs have far outpaced military aid.
Many residents teed off on the Air Force at a community open house accompanying the report's release Tuesday - deriding the years-long timeline for aid.
Carla Lucas, 67, said the Air Force needs to pay for those fixes and fast.
"I'm not happy," Lucas said. "They're dragging their feet."
Perfluorinated compounds are among a long list of chemicals not regulated by the EPA, despite their health warnings.
They have had myriad household and industrial uses since their creation about 50 years ago - often for nonstick items, including fast-food wrappers, frying pans and rain jackets.
The compounds also were used for decades in a firefighting foam praised for its ability to snuff fuel fires that burn incredibly hot. Peterson airmen trained with the foam since the 1970s, even as Fort Carson phased out use of the foam in the 1990s because of environmental fears.
The Peterson site inspection began last fall, when the Air Force drilled well holes at sites where firefighters were known to have used the foam.
The foam was pulled from Peterson firetrucks last winter and replaced with a similar chemical that the military considers less dangerous.
Testing wrapped up in November, and the Air Force has spent the past eight months compiling its research. In all, the Air Force took 23 groundwater and two surface water samples, along with 33 topsoil samples and two sediment samples.
It's planning another, more thorough site inspection this fall to examine how groundwater flows beneath the base.
The study examining ways to fix the issue is expected to follow in 2019, if the Air Force gets money from Congress.
How Air Force officials plan to clean up the water remains unclear. In its report, the Air Force said its work addressing the contamination will come "as other potential contributors are investigated."
So far, no other definitive sources have been publicly identified.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to reflect Carla Lucas' correct age.