A bill banning the use of a firefighting foam linked to drinking water contamination in southern El Paso County passed its first committee test on Thursday.
House Bill 1279 — sponsored in the House by Democratic Rep. Tony Exum and Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf, both of Colorado Springs — passed the House Energy and Environment Committee on an 8-2 vote. It now moves to the House Appropriations Committee.
The bill would ban Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. Such chemicals were used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base and have been found in the contaminated Widefield aquifer, drinking water for Security, Widefield and Fountain.
The foam was sprayed on the ground and used for years in a firefighting training area that was flushed into Colorado Springs Utilities’ treatment system, which was ill-equipped to remove the chemicals. The effluent ended up in Fountain Creek, which feeds the Widefield aquifer.
The Air Force has since replaced that foam with a new version that the military says is less toxic and more environmentally friendly, though it still contains perfluorinated chemicals.
The full extent of contamination in Colorado is unknown, the bill says, though it notes that such chemicals also have been an issue in Boulder County’s Sugarloaf area.
Under the bill, fire departments would be banned from using such foam for training exercises beginning Aug. 2. A first offense would result in a $5,000 fine, with the fine rising to $10,000 for subsequent offenses. Firefighters’ protective gear would be barred from containing the chemicals.
Fines would go into a fund established in 2014 that helps pay for firefighters’ health needs.
Under the bill’s “Firefighting Foams and Personal Protective Equipment Act,” which would start in August 2021, manufacturers no longer could sell fluorine-based foam in Colorado, except where allowed by federal law. Exum said Thursday those who sell firefighting foam would be required to certify whether that foam is fluorine free.
The chemicals have been linked to a host of health ailments, including kidney cancer, thyroid problems and low infant birth weight.
The bill does provide exemptions for use of the fluorine-based foams at chemical plants, where otherwise provided for by federal law and at fuel storage facilities. Landgraf said another exemption may be on the way, allowing the use of fluorine-based foams to end catastrophic fires at refineries, oil tankers loaded onto trains and tank farms.
At this time of year in the legislative session, however, bills that carry a cost may have a harder time getting past the appropriations committees.
House Bill 1279 carries a cost of $47,000, all for a survey to be conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which every three years would look at the amount of PFAS foam held, used, and disposed of by fire departments for the preceding five years.
Exum said that the survey could be put off a year if the money isn’t there, and that would eliminate costs tied to the bill.
While the Air Force’s new foam still contains a different type of PFAS, Peterson Air Force Base has agreed to only use it in life-saving responses.
It also will only use water during training exercises, said Stephen Brady, a Peterson spokesman.
Renee Lani of the American Chemical Society’s Fluoro Council described the benefits of fluorine-based foams, while saying the industry supports legislation that limits its use to emergencies.
Fluorine-free foams can be an alternative for spills or smaller tank fires, Lani said, but “they are not currently able to provide the same level of fire suppression, capability, flexibility and scope of usage.”
She acknowledged the concerns that some fluorine-based foams have contaminated the environment.
Liz Rosenbaum, who lives in the Fountain area, pointed out that blood tests have shown that many residents’ bloodstreams are saturated with the toxic chemicals.
“We are the most contaminated community in the United States and have been contaminated since the 1970s,” Rosenbaum said.
Steve Clapp of the Colorado Professional Firefighters Association also testified in favor of House Bill 1279. There are no safe levels of these chemicals in the body, Clapp told the committee.
“They are referred to as forever chemicals” because of how long-lasting they they are in soil and groundwater, he said. “We support the complete eradication of these dangerous chemicals.”
Republican Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs voted against the bill, although he said he might support it once it gets to the floor. He said he supports firefighters who support getting rid of the chemicals and believes “the Air Force has learned its lesson.”
The General Assembly isn’t the only body working on ending fluorine-based chemicals. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner have signed on as co-sponsors of bipartisan legislation that would mandate the Environmental Protection Agency “declare per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup funds under the EPA Superfund law.”
The Gazette’s Jakob Rodgers contributed to this report.