TOXIC LEGACY: Air Force studies dating back decades show danger of foam that contaminated local water

Volunteers, left to right, Rosemary Calderaro, Michelle Betsayda and Jennifer Allen with Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado helped give away bottled water Friday, July 1, 216, at St. Dominic Catholic Church. The food bank is giving away the water after chemical know as perflourinated compounds were found in Security, Widefield and Fountain water supplies at levels the EPA considers unsafe. The giveaway will be held each Friday in July from 10am-noon. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner introduced legislation Friday that could speed the cleanup of toxic chemicals contaminating the drinking water of millions of Americans, while helping force polluters to pay up.

The senators’ PFAS Action Plan for 2019 comes after the Environmental Protection Agency was criticized by environmental groups and affected residents for not going further in its plan for addressing the chemicals.

The bipartisan legislation — Bennet is a Democrat, Gardner a Republican — mandates the EPA declare all perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, man-made compounds also known as PFAS, as “hazardous substances” within one year of the bill’s passage. The designation would clear the way for the EPA to use Superfund money to clean up contaminated sites, while opening the door for the government to sue polluters for cleanup costs.

“It seems like a positive step,” said Meghan Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It really could be a driver for PFAS groundwater investigations and contaminations (cleanups) across the state.”

Also called perfluorinated compounds, the chemicals have been linked to several health ailments, including cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol.

The legislation’s inclusion of all types of PFAS chemicals — rather than just a select few — would signal a potentially massive expansion of areas eligible for cleanup beyond what the EPA has considered.

So far, the EPA has only shown a willingness to address two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances.

But some scientists have estimated as many as 3,000 or 5,000 exist. They were widely used in nonstick household items, such as fast-food wrappers, carpet cleaners and cookware, as well as in a military firefighting foam used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base and other military installations around the world.

As a result, expanding the number of chemicals might help millions of Americans and numerous more sites become eligible for Superfund help.

In announcing the legislation, Bennet said he wanted to treat the “public health threat with the urgency it requires.”

Nearly a year ago, for example, the EPA said it planned to begin declaring the two best-known types of PFAS chemicals — known as PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous substances under the act that established the Superfund program.

But the agency came under fire for not following through, nor issuing such a designation in its long-awaited national PFAS action plan, which was released Feb. 14. Instead, the agency’s plan said that its work was “ongoing,” and it gave no time frame for an announcement.

“It is inexcusable that the Trump administration continues to delay action to address PFAS contamination across the country,” Bennet said.

Gardner said the legislation is a chance to hold polluters accountable.

“PFAS contamination is a serious issue facing our communities and we need to act quickly to address this challenge,” said Gardner, in a statement.

The legislation does not address any other aspect of the EPA’s oversight of those chemicals, such as whether the agency should regulate the chemicals in a similar fashion as lead, cyanide and mercury.

Should it pass, it’s impact on southern El Paso County — where the drinking water of tens of thousands of Security, Widefield and Fountain residents was tainted — remained unclear Friday.

The Air Force is in the midst of a yearslong process to address the chemicals that is similar to the federal Superfund program, due to the decadeslong use of a firefighting foam containing the toxic chemicals at Peterson Air Force Base that was detected in groundwater.

The Air Force is still investigating the contamination — a process that was expected to take years. And any cleanup steps — such as removing the chemicals from the Widefield aquifer — have not been announced, nor has money been allocated for such cleanup efforts.

In the meantime, water districts serving Security, Widefield and Fountain have spent millions of dollars installing treatment systems and piping in water from elsewhere to remove the chemicals from residents’ tap water to nondetectable levels.

Two other communities in Colorado — in Boulder and Adams counties — also have discovered the chemicals in their drinking water. Both contamination sites were near fire departments that used the same toxic firefighting foam that was a mainstay at Peterson Air Force Base, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Twelve other senators — seven Democrats and five Republicans — are listed as cosponsors of the bill. A similar, bipartisan measure has been introduced in the House, where Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn has not taken a position on it.

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