The Pentagon is reportedly lobbying for a more lenient standard for cleaning up toxic chemicals used for decades in firefighting foam that have been found in drinking water in southern El Paso County and around the country.
Even if the Pentagon is successful, the Air Force appears unlikely to get off the hook for cleaning up the contaminated Widefield aquifer serving tens of thousands of residents south of Colorado Springs, state health officials said.
The Defense Department’s push to revise safety standards comes as it faces billions of dollars in cleanup costs tied to its decades-long use of a firefighting foam laced with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals, known as PFAS, are tied to cancer, liver disease and low infant birth weight.
The lobbying appears aimed at influencing the Environmental Protection Agency’s groundwater cleanup standard — a level at which cleanup would be required of polluters.
In a report to Congress, the Pentagon said an appropriate level is 380 parts per trillion, the New York Times reported. It’s at least five times what the EPA says could be harmful to people, and dozens of times higher than another federal agency says is toxic to people.
At that level, the military could avoid paying to clean up many contaminated sites across the nation, said David Andrews, senior scientist for the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group.
“Even if it’s the same number of sites, the amount of cleanup you’re doing at each site would be drastically reduced,” Andrews said. “The likely impact is that DoD is really trying to pass on the responsibilities and the cost for cleaning up this contamination. Which is dreadful.”
In a statement, the Pentagon said it takes its cleanup responsibility “seriously.”
“DOD is not seeking a different or weaker cleanup standard but wants the standard risk-based cleanup approach that is based on science and applies to everyone,” the statement said.
Still, one of Delaware’s Democratic U.S. senators, Tom Carper, claimed in a letter to the EPA that the Defense Department is currently only cleaning up sites where groundwater readings exceed 400 parts per trillion, and only removing the chemicals to 70 ppt. The Pentagon was joined by NASA and the Small Business Administration in lobbying for more relaxed standards, the senator said.
The Pentagon report only referenced two PFAS varieties — PFOA and PFOS — even though thousands of other varieties are known to exist. The report was issued last year, and reported Thursday by The New York Times, along with Carper’s letter.
The Defense Department’s maneuvering is expected to have little impact on cleanup operations around Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado health officials say.
State regulations would still force the Air Force to clean up the tainted Widefield aquifer to a more stringent standard that is in line with the EPA’s current health advisory, according to Kelly MacGregor, a Colorado Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman.
The state’s Water Quality Control Commission voted unanimously in April to adopt a site-specific groundwater quality standard of 70 ppt for the same two chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — combined.
Even without the state standard, the aquifer’s contamination downstream from the base is so bad that cleanup efforts around Peterson would likely go unaffected by the Pentagon’s lobbying.
Seven wells drilled about three years ago in the Widefield aquifer showed PFOS at levels of 400 ppt or greater. One well drilled at the Colorado Springs Airport found the chemical at 1,600 ppt.
Neither the state’s adopted groundwater standard, nor lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., touch on the thousands of other types of chemicals, also called perfluorinated compounds.
For communities affected by use of the foam, such as Security, Widefield and Fountain, that could be a significant problem, Andrews said.
For example, another type of chemical called PFHxS is often associated with use of the firefighting foam. And no other type of perfluorinated compound was as common in drinking water samples taken from Security or Fountain wells as PFHxS, nor present at such high levels, according to EPA drinking water data.
A couple of other chemicals were reported as frequently in wells serving Widefield. But again, none were as consistently high as PFHxS.
It also has been found in the drinking water of dozens of other water districts across the country, EPA results show. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says it could cause liver damage and a decreased ability to respond to vaccines.
Several other types of PFAS also have raised health concerns while being found in water systems across the country.
“Really we’d like to see the EPA and the DoD focusing on reducing the total PFAS contamination ... shifting into high gear and taking responsibility for cleaning up all of this contamination,” Andrews said.
The military has previously avoided addressing the foam, despite concerns about its toxicity. A Gazette investigation in 2016 found the Air Force ignored decades of warnings about the foam’s dangers, including studies by its own researchers dating to the 1970s that showed chemicals like those in the foam were harmful to laboratory animals.
Congress has allocated tens of millions of dollars from the Defense Department to address contamination in El Paso County, including helping install treatment plants for water districts and filters on private wells.
But local water districts have been stuck with another roughly $9.5 million in unreimbursed costs, which the Air Force says it cannot pay back. The Security Water District and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which owns Venetucci Farm, recently filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government seeking at least $18.3 million in past and future costs related to the contamination.
Also, the Air Force is in the midst of a yearslong process to address the chemicals that is similar to the federal Superfund program. Air Force officials issued a report in summer 2017 that admitted chemicals from the foam had leached into the surrounding groundwater. A follow-up report with more test data is expected to be finalized in May.
Even more studies must be completed before any cleanup takes place, however, and they have yet to be funded by Congress, Peterson officials said. Cleanup of the aquifer is not expected until the 2020s, if Congress allocates money for it.