A sweeping federal plan announced Monday to monitor and limit toxic forever chemicals in drinking water and the environment, and to remediate pollution would likely have limited impact on El Paso County water providers with known contamination that have already taken mitigation measures. But, it could reveal other contamination problems locally and nationally.
The Environmental Protection Agency's plan would set enforceable limits on some types of the long-lasting perfluorinated compounds in drinking water for the first time, and would require water treatment providers of all sizes to test for them. It would also put stricter limits on releasing the chemicals into the environment and designate the chemicals as hazardous materials.
The agency said the steps would help safeguard public health because per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known commonly as forever chemicals, can build up in the body. They are also associated with long-term health problems such as decreased fertility, increased risk of cancer and impacts on the immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the compounds are found in consumer products, drinking water is a dominant source of exposure across the country, and moving from a health advisory level for the compounds to enforceable limits would be a positive step to limit health impacts of chemicals that are not fully understood, said University of Colorado epidemiology professor Anne Starling. She is studying the effects of chemicals on residents in southern El Paso County.
Some groundwater aquifers, like the Widefield aquifer in southern El Paso County, were contaminated by firefighting foam and others are near businesses that use the chemicals in the manufacturing process. In some cases the source of the pollution is unknown.
"I think we are going to look more carefully at how all these different water systems got contaminated," she said.
Forever chemicals grabbed headlines in El Paso County in 2016 when Gazette reporting showed the Air Force continued to use firefighting foam despite research going back decades that it could be harmful. The firefighting foam contaminated the groundwater used by Widefield, Security and Fountain — water providers that have since taken steps to ensure drinking water is safe.
The Air Force has spent about $41 million for new treatment plants for all three water providers to remove the chemicals. They would likely be unaffected by new EPA limits on the chemicals in drinking water. However, Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts, welcomed new federal limits that would help guide water providers and the Air Force as some states have started setting their own standards for forever chemicals in the water.
"We do need national leadership on this issue," he said.
Security's plant is not completely operational yet, and Fountain's plant is not expected to come online until spring, operators said. Security is relying mostly on surface water, Heald said. While Fountain is using granular activated carbon treatment systems to keep two of its four wells in operation until the new plant in Aga Park comes online. Fountain's plant has been delayed because equipment needed to stir up water in the treatment process is not available, Utilities Director Dan Blankenship said.
The town is going to put in a new building over the water treatment plant to protect it from the elements before the plant goes into operation, he said. The Air Force is paying for the new $1.5 million building, and the new plant will take forever chemicals down to nondetectable levels when it is in place, he said.
The risk of forever chemical exposure extends far beyond firefighting foam, however, to food wrappers, stain resistant carpeting and eating fish caught in water contaminated by the chemicals and other consumer products, according to the CDC.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan nonprofit, released a map showing close to 42,000 industrial sites that "produce or use, are suspected of using, or are a suspected source" of the compounds, including sites locally.
Industries that can contribute to the chemical pollution include companies that make semiconductors and related devices, carpet and upholstery cleaning companies and communication and energy wire manufacturing, among many other industries, the nonprofit said.
Forever chemical pollution is also widespread on Department of Defense properties with hundreds of polluted sites, the Environmental Working Group said.
The EPA plans to work with facilities where forever chemicals are expected or suspected to be discharged into waterways to make sure the pollution is monitored, contained, potentially pretreated and downstream communities are notified about it, agency documentation said.
The permitting process could help track down sources of pollution or former sources and make the public more aware of them, said Chris Higgins, a Colorado School of Mines professor focused on the lasting chemical compounds. The new federal steps should also raise awareness of the chemicals, particularly in urban environments, he said.
"Generally, with awareness does come decreased exposure," he said.
Higgins said he would have also liked to see some assistance for residents on private groundwater wells to have their water tested if they are near a pollution source.
A large-scale study on the health impacts of forever chemicals through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is enrolling residents exposed to the Widefield aquifer contamination.