Nearly two years after toxic chemicals from Air Force firefighting foam were found in water drawn from the Widefield aquifer, the military announced a string of measures Wednesday to deliver clean drinking water to residents of southern El Paso County.
Under the deal, the Air Force will pay more than $900,000 to procure untainted water and filter water from the aquifer to remove perfluorinated compounds that studies have found were released at Peterson Air Force Base when airmen used the foam, which has since been banned by the military.
"As a longtime member of the Front Range, we place an extremely high value on all of our community partnerships, and are pleased we can move forward with these support agreements," Peterson vice-commander Col. Eric Dorminey, said in a statement.
The military had faced criticism from civic leaders in Security, Widefield and Fountain for moving too slowly to address the contamination that was made public with an Environmental Protection Agency health advisory in 2016. The EPA has determined that the tiniest amounts of the chemical - comparable to a shot glass in 2.1 million bathtubs of water - can lead to long-term health impacts including high cholesterol and some forms of cancer.
In 2016, the Air Force pledged $4.3 million to initial efforts to deal with the contamination, with most of that cash going to bottled water and filtration systems. The new money is designed to deal with continuing problems from the contamination, and to ease tensions with local governments that have complained about the costs associated with delivering clean drinking water.
Under the agreement, the Air Force also promised to ensure filter systems installed in Fountain are working properly and agreed to buy 235 million gallons of drinking water from other sources, so the town won't have to rely on the tainted aquifer.
Widefield Water and Sanitation District gets $606,000 to operate and maintain water filters for its users.
What's coming for the Security Water District remains unclear in monetary terms, but the Air Force says it will "complete efforts to acquire alternate drinking water supplies for the community through an existing contract with the Army Corps of Engineers and, due to limited funding of that contract, evaluate additional ways to procure alternate water."
Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega issued a statement praising the deal.
"The city of Fountain appreciates the partnership and cooperation we have shared with the Air Force on this important matter to our community," he said.
While the water agreements will solve some of the Air Force's problems over the contamination, a long-term cleanup for the aquifer is likely years away.
The service, despite internal studies dating to the 1970s that showed the chemicals in the foam were harmful, continued using it around the globe for decades, a Gazette investigation found. In the U.S. alone, hundreds of sites with contaminated water have been tied to military use of the foam.
Studies are underway to determine the full extent of contamination tied to Peterson. Colorado environmental officials are evaluating a standard for the Widefield aquifer which would limit the chemical to 70 parts per trillion in the water.
And legal wrangling over the contamination is grinding through the courts, with more than 7,000 water users in southern El Paso County joining a lawsuit against firms that made the firefighting foam for the military.
The Air Force on Wednesday, though, said the water deals are an important early step.
"We are dedicated to resolving mission impacts to drinking water supplies and safeguarding the health of our community partners in Colorado and around the country," Cornell Long of the Air Force's Civil Engineer Center said in a statement. "Thanks to our strong partnership with Fountain, Security and Widefield, these agreements will help us protect those communities as we move forward with our investigation in and around Peterson."