Hold it in your fingers, and it resembles a yellow, miniaturized version of roe, the fish eggs found on many popular sushi rolls.
Be warned, though, these polymer beads are no tasty snack. Instead, they create a complex molecular reaction that promises to provide clean water for tens of thousands of Security, Widefield and Fountain residents.
Construction is underway on water plants for each of those communities. They’re hoped to provide a long-term solution for treating water drawn from an aquifer saturated with toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used for decades by nearby Peterson Air Force Base .
The plants are based on a novel treatment system pioneered by Widefield Water and Sanitation District more than two years ago. And the centerpiece of it is those tiny beads.
This ion-exchange system works to remove toxins, long known as perfluorinated compounds, from water from the contaminated Widefield aquifer. More recently, government agencies have referred to the chemicals with the more inclusive term of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
Once complete, water managers say, the treatment systems will give those communities long-lasting options to get clean drinking water from the tainted aquifer.
“It’s our long-term solution,” said Curtis Mitchell, Fountain’s utilities director. “It’s a permanent facility. It brings all of our wells together. We’re putting in the technology that’s been proven to be the best.”
The new plants likely won’t be a final answer to the contamination, though.
An Air Force report quietly released this past spring detailed ties between the groundwater contamination and Peterson’s use of the toxic firefighting foam. But the Defense Department has yet to receive money from Congress for a remedial investigation. Such studies determine how the military will clean up contaminated areas, including how to permanently remove the chemicals from the underground waterway.
“Right now, we’re at a pause for funding,” said Jeff Bohn, a spokesman for the 21st Space Wing at Peterson.
Still, the treatment plants under construction are viewed as a way to ensure communities can keep using the aquifer until the chemicals are permanently removed.
A few weeks ago, Fountain became the most recent to start building a treatment facility. The $7 million project, to be completed next year, is expected to supply the city with chemical-free water for the foreseeable future.
Security Water and Sanitation Districts began constructing its plant in mid-May, one that could supply the city with up to 9 million gallons of water a day. It’s expected to be ready by the end of 2020.
Widefield Water and Sanitation District recently started work on its third ion-exchange treatment plant.
“In our research, we felt ion exchange was a good way to go. And I’m certainly glad to see the other districts are agreeing with us, because obviously that shows we did something right,” said Mark Watson, the Widefield district’s board president.
The treatment plants are the main result of about $50 million spent by the Air Force to provide clean drinking water to more than 64,000 people who rely on the aquifer.
They’ve come as a welcome sign of progress to Liz Rosenbaum, organizer of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
Still, she said, serious questions linger — especially about the health of residents who lived for decades in the area while Peterson still was using the chemicals.
“If you were here before 2015, you have these nasty chemicals in your body that are called ‘forever chemicals’ that are never going to leave,” Rosenbaum said.
“And at any given point in time, you could start having health problems. The people who have lived here are still in a health crisis in this community.”
The chemicals were found a few years ago when water districts across the nation were told to check for a host of unregulated contaminants that, until then, had not been tracked during federal water quality tests.
The man-made chemicals were used for decades in a firefighting foam prized for its ability to extinguish petroleum fires. The chemicals also long were used in a host of household and nonstick products, including carpet cleaners, Teflon and fast-food wrappers.
The chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol, among other ailments. And they’re nicknamed “forever chemicals” because their remarkably strong chemical bonds don’t break down easily in the environment or in human bodies.
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued lifetime health advisories for only two types of them: PFOA and PFOS.
A tablespoon of those chemicals in 20 Olympic-sized pools would easily exceed the agency’s threshold.
But thousands of types of the chemicals exist, and the EPA has yet to address the most prevalent type found in the bloodstreams of people participating in a Colorado School of Public Health study.
That variety, known as PFHxS, is smaller, stays in the body longer and is harder to filter out of water. It also is linked to liver damage, and the chemical appears to be more toxic than its better known molecular cousins, reports the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Residents in those southern El Paso County communities haven’t received water tainted by the chemicals for three to four years.
Initially, the three largest water districts stopped using the aquifer — Fountain in the fall of 2015, and Security and Widefield in the late summer and fall of 2016.
A couple of the districts since have installed small-scale treatment systems to supplement their water supplies, particularly in summer when demand is highest.
Widefield was first to dip back into the aquifer after installing an ion-exchange system in 2017.
It was novel then, because it eschewed better-known granular-activated carbon filters (essentially professional-grade, large-scale charcoal filters) in favor of a system that had not been used on this scale to remove PFAS from drinking water.
The system worked well by removing at least six types of PFAS to nondetectable levels, including PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS, a Widefield water official previously told The Gazette. The water district declined to make staff members available to interview for this article.
Meanwhile, new granular-activated carbon filters in Fountain, paid for by the Air Force, worked worse than expected, Curtis said.
The filters removed at least six types of the chemicals to nondetectable levels, but they needed to be replaced frequently.
Originally, Curtis expected to change the filters once a year. Instead, they needed to be replaced every five or six months, at a cost of $37,000 per filter vessel.
Curtis said the ion-exchange beads should last much longer.
“The ion exchange is more cost-effective,” he said. “The size of the filter vessels is smaller. But more importantly, it’s just better performance.”
Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts, agreed. His district opted to buy water from Colorado Springs Utilities rather than open a small treatment plant.
For the district’s long-term plant, he also chose an ion-exchange system.
“The trouble is, everything’s new right now,” Heald said. “But I think this is a very proven technology. And I think there’s also a great deal of confidence that it will handle both long-chain and short-chain PFAS chemicals. So I’m very comfortable with that.”