EDITORIAL: Air Force should care more about toxic foam

Peterson Air Force base used firefighting foam that contaminated nearby drinking water.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency won’t act, a bipartisan group of El Paso County legislators will.

This week, the foursome introduced House Bill 1279, which would ban the kind of firefighting foam found in water supplies of Fountain, Security and Widefield.

The two Republican sponsors are Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain and Rep. Lois Landgraf of Colorado Springs, and the two Democrats are Sen. Pete Lee and Rep. Tony Exum, both of Colorado Springs.

HB 1279 — scheduled to be heard April 15 in the House Energy and Environment Committee — would ban Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called PFAS.

The Widefield aquifer is permanently contaminated with PFAS 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 firefighting station wells in Boulder County’s Sugarloaf area.

Implementation dates would start Aug. 2, when fire departments would be banned from using such foam when training. A first offense would result in a $5,000 fine; each subsequent offense could prompt a $10,000 fine. Also Aug. 2, the bill would ban firefighters’ protective gear that contains the chemicals.

Under the bill’s “Firefighting Foams and Personal Protective Equipment Act,” which would start in August 2021, manufacturers no longer could sell such foam in Colorado, except where allowed by federal law.

The EPA can protect public water supplies and set maximum contaminant levels for certain chemicals, but it hasn’t done so for any types of PFAS despite calls by environmental advocates and residents affected by the toxic chemicals.

The agency has issued health advisories for two types of these chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, which formerly were used in carpets, clothing, upholstery, paper packaging and other goods. U.S. companies volunteered to phase out those chemicals in 2006, but they’re still used in firefighting foam, says a 2016 EPA fact sheet.

High levels of the contaminants were found in the bloodstream of residents in the affected communities during a December study by the Colorado School of Mines and the Colorado School of Public Health at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

The foam found its way into the drinking water supply from nearby Peterson Air Force Base, which also used it at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, Landgraf said this week.

The chemicals weaken the immune system and may cause cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol, the study shows. The chemicals also are linked to kidney and thyroid problems and complications in pregnancy, according to the bill.

The foam has been used on fires at Peterson, but its most common use was for fire training, which has taken place there for decades. Peterson’s plane-fire simulator allows crews to practice for actual crashes.

This was used by military and civilian firefighting crews around the Pikes Peak region for decades, resulting in the largest emissions of the perfluorinated chemicals, according to Air Force studies.

The Air Force has replaced that toxic foam with a new foam that contains a different type of PFAS chemical, which the military says is more environmentally friendly.

The foam also reached wastewater treatment systems after being used at Petersen and at the city airport’s fire training area. The foam, in turn, wound up in the Colorado Springs Utilities treatment plant, which uses an oil/water separator that could not remove any type of PFAS chemicals. The water then was flushed into Fountain Creek, which supplies the Widefield Aquifer.

The Gazette’s Jakob Rodgers and Tom Roeder contributed to this story.

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