Air Force Academy firefighters training a quarter century ago released a torrent of toxic perfluorinated chemicals that seeped into groundwater and flowed into Monument Creek, a 15,000-page Air Force report released Friday shows.
A series of tests by Air Force researchers showed groundwater had 1,000 times the level of perfluorinated compounds considered safe by state and federal regulators. Records on the training that used firefighting foam loaded with the chemicals are spotty to nonexistent at the academy, the report said, but hazy recollections of the training, which ran from the late 1980s to the early 1990s at the pit, less than 100 yards from the creek, led to the recent tests.
Colorado’s health department on Friday recommended that anyone who uses groundwater south of the academy who hasn’t had their well tested should switch to bottled water. The same holds true for anyone whose wells exceed the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion after testing.
About 30 domestic or household wells exist within one mile downstream of the Air Force Academy, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The Air Force plans to go door to door in the affected area to determine if private wells are being used for drinking water, the agency said. In the process, the Air Force plans to take up to 125 drinking water samples from potentially affected private or municipal drinking water wells.
“Our focus is on ensuring no one is drinking water above the EPA’s (advisory level),” the academy said in an email. “In the event any human drinking water sources (are) believed impacted ... the Air Force will take immediate measures to provide bottled water or other alternative sources until more permanent mitigation can be installed.”
Colorado Springs Utilities says the chemicals from the academy won’t impact drinking water in the city.
The utility said its wells on and near the Air Force Academy have hardly — if ever — been used. The utility has traditionally relied on surface water to supply people on its system. The last time the utility used wells in its system was around 2002 or 2003, during a significant drought, said Steve Berry, a Utilities spokesman. That use was “very limited,” Berry said, though he was unsure whether wells near the academy were used at that time.
Word of the chemicals’ possible presence in her well water came as a shock to Connie Hornbaker, 68, who has lived in Woodmen Valley for nearly 30 years.
“I hope they’re going to do immediate testing of the water,” Hornbaker said. “Of course, we immediately last night went and bought water. So we’ll never drink that water again.”
For years, many homes in the Woodmen Valley area solely relied on well water. But 15 or 20 years ago, most of those houses were plumbed into the Utilities network. Since then, those newly connected households have only used their wells to irrigate their properties.
On Friday, Hornbaker said the Air Force has been a good neighbor until this point, and she expressed optimism that the military would quickly address the issue.
“We hope they work in a speedy manner here,” Hornbaker said.
The trouble with perfluorinated chemicals came to light in the Pikes Peak region in 2016 after Environmental Protection Agency-mandated testing found unsafe levels of the chemicals in drinking water from the Widefield aquifer about 20 miles to the south of the academy, near Peterson Air Force Base. Called “forever chemicals” the perfluorinated compounds that squelch fuel fires are also used to stain-proof carpets and make nonstick cookware.
After the EPA report, the Air Force quickly began a study of the chemicals’ use at Peterson, where a fire training area showed dangerous levels of the chemical — more than 1,200 times the level deemed safe by state regulators.
Studies of other local Air Force bases were ordered, with the academy study kicking off a year ago. It is among 203 Air Force bases under scrutiny for pollution from the chemicals — a problem that could cost billions of dollars to fix.
The Air Force study found that the chemicals have likely migrated off the 18,500-acre academy and into some of the hundreds of drinking water wells around the school.
“Potential human receptors include base personnel exposed to impacted surface soil and off-base residents through ingestion of impacted groundwater and surface water,” the study found.
Fran Silva-Blayney, an advocate with the Sierra Club, called the report’s findings “really disturbing,” and she called for testing of Monument Creek to understand the extent of the contamination.
“It’s mind-boggling how the Air Force and military bases have been able to contaminate our groundwater and surface water for decades, and we’re only just finding out about it,” Silva-Blayney said.
Chemicals in the firefighting foam stick in the human body like few others. One such chemical’s half-life, the time it takes the body to part with half of the chemical in the blood, is 5.4 years — 60 times that of lead. Other chemicals tied to the foam last even longer.
That means those exposed decades ago probably still carry the chemicals in their blood and could suffer from its toxic effects.
And it doesn’t take much of the chemicals to render drinking water unsafe. A shot glass of perfluorinated chemicals is enough to pollute 2.1 million bathtubs of water.
The fire training site is one of two at the academy deemed to have unsafe levels of the chemicals used in a military firefighting foam. The chemicals have been linked to range of ailments from high cholesterol to cancer and have forced El Paso County water districts to invest millions of dollars into filtration systems.
Concerns about the toxicity of the chemicals dates back decades.
A Gazette investigation in 2016 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. The chemicals number in the thousands. More recently, government agencies have referred to them with the more inclusive term of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The academy says its personnel, including 4,000 cadets, are safe, since the school relies on Utilities rather than wells for drinking water.
But the link between the training site, not used since the early 1990s, and the creek could help explain toxic levels of perfluorinated compounds found in the Widefield aquifer, which provided drinking water to customers in Security, Widefield and Fountain.
The academy, like other bases in the region, quit on-site training with the firefighting foam in the early 1990s, when a regional training center was opened at Peterson Air Force Base where troops learned to battle the fuel fires associated with plane crashes.
Effluent from that Peterson training area was flushed into a Utilities’ treatment plant, which cannot remove the chemicals. That water was then sent into Fountain Creek — a chief source of water for the Widefield aquifer.
To the north, the academy’s toxic fire training area is legendary for birthing champion teams in the Firefighter Challenge, a competition that tests firefighting skills.
An academy team was named the world’s best in 2018 at a competition in California and the school’s fire department is considered a leading contender for a world crown this year.
The academy said the training site is still in use, but no foam is used in training. The school also said that while soil there tested positive for the chemical, firefighters are protected from it by a layer of concrete.