The Air Force's problem with contaminated water, which it has been attempting to remedy in southern El Paso County with an unprecedented aid package, could get a lot worse.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recently sought to publish a study revealing how perfluorinated compounds found in military firefighting foam could be nearly six times more toxic than current advisories, Environmental Protection Agency emails show.
Two years after the crisis arose, the Air Force has begun paying for cleansing the compounds from water flowing into taps in Security, Widefield and Fountain. In a move praised by local water districts, the Air Force allocated about $34 million this year to filtration systems and other measures to deliver clean water to users who have been living with the legacy of decades of pollution that almost certainly flowed from Peterson Air Force Base into the Widefield aquifer.
The new money won't reimburse local water districts for the millions already spent responding to the crisis. However, it does largely end huge outlays of cash by the districts for at least a year and it shifts much of the financial burden from local ratepayers to the nation's taxpayers.
Meanwhile, emails between top EPA administrators revealed an ongoing argument over the danger posed by the chemicals.
The emails, released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under a Freedom of Information Act request and first reported by Politico, showed a White House staffer referring to the study as a "potential public relations nightmare." It framed the findings as being "extremely painful" for the EPA and the Defense Department.
The issue drew concern from Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who fired off a letter to EPA boss Scott Pruitt demanding an explanation.
"If true, these allegations are deeply troubling but I want to give you the opportunity to address the accuracy of the claims," Lamborn wrote. "The communities of Widefield, Fountain, and Security in Colorado's Fifth (Congressional District) have been especially affected by perfluorinated compounds contamination. Even in the event of conflicting information between agencies, it is crucial for the men and women of these affected communities to have the most complete information available."
An EPA spokesman said the agency would respond to Lamborn "through the proper channels."
The Pentagon has already identified 548 drinking water systems around the world that are contaminated under the existing standard of 70 parts per trillion. That's a shot glass of the chemical in 107 million gallons of water.
At the new levels deemed immunotoxic in the contested research review - 12 parts per trillion - a shot glass of the chemical would be enough to pollute the water in a train of tank cars stretching from Colorado Springs to Grand Junction.
"It really calls into question whether or not the EPA health advisory is protective or not," said David Andrews, senior scientist at the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. "And what we're seeing is it's not."
"Their ultimate responsibility is protection of public health," Andrews said. "And when faced with ... another group of scientists' assessment that these chemicals may actually be a concern at lower concentrations, they really have just tried to bury their heads in the sand."
Some aspects not funded
The ongoing price tag for addressing contamination around Peterson Air Force Base highlights the financial toll wrought by the toxic chemicals, even at the EPA's current advisory level.
At least $47 million has been spent by local water districts or allocated by the military for southern El Paso County since the EPA tightened its health advisory for the chemicals in May 2016, according to interviews with military and water district officials.
That includes at least $38 million spent or budgeted by the Air Force to investigate the contamination, purchase filters, procure clean water and construct long-term treatment plants over the next several years.
Almost all of that - about $34 million - was budgeted for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. About $27.5 million of it was thrown in by Congress as extra money shortly before passing the Defense Department's latest budget.
Lamborn said the commitment is refreshing after long months of wrangling with the Pentagon over clean-up costs.
"I'm glad they are finally getting their act together," Lamborn said.
And local water districts have spent at least another roughly $9 million over the last two years - none of which can be reimbursed by the Air Force. As a result, most of those costs either have, or soon will, fall to ratepayers in the area.
None of those figures include money spent researching the toxic chemicals' effects on residents here. Nor do they include the cost of blood tests sought by residents, or any medical bills incurred by residents that may be due to the toxic chemicals.
Andrews, of the Environmental Working Group, called having taxpayers foot the bill a "travesty."
"(It) really highlights how numerous companies can significantly profit in ways where the public ends up making up that difference, and having to clean up these contaminated sites," he said.
New funding provides relief
The contamination here is just a fraction of the headache - and the bill - facing the Pentagon.
Defense Department leaders have said they expect to spend at least $2 billion responding to contamination tied to past and present military installations around the world.
"The whole point of what we're doing is to protect drinking water," said Mark Kinkade, an Air Force Civil Engineer Center spokesman. "It's a major investment by us, to respond to the contaminated groundwater."
"We're all members of the military communities where we serve, we're part of that regional family," Kinkade added. "And we're committed to ensuring the safety of the drinking water ... where our mission activities may have had an impact."
Local water district leaders praised the new funding.
Until now, the districts have been largely left to foot the bill themselves for providing clean water to the thousands of affected residents in Security, Widefield and Fountain.
The Air Force had previously pledged millions of dollars in aid to southern El Paso County. But bureaucratic red tape slowed that relief, and Security and Widefield water leaders opted to use their districts' reserves rather than have their customers using contaminated water while waiting on the Air Force.
"We're in a much better position because of the commitments that the Air Force has made," said Roy Heald, Security Water and Sanitation Districts' general manager. "Even though they haven't paid a bill yet ... there are written commitments.
"So from that standpoint, we're just miles ahead of where we were last May. Because we didn't really know if we were going to get any help or not."
Funds help with demands
Much of that new money is budgeted for longer-term treatment facilities in each of the area's three largest water districts.
Plans for those water treatment plants are being drafted, and a Sept. 30 deadline looms for finalizing those construction contracts. If they miss it, they risk losing that money, said Brian Howard, who works on the Air Force's perfluorinated compound team.
The plants are viewed as among the most robust means to deal with the contamination. They can treat water from several wells at once, and they can finally afford district managers the flexibility needed when one of those wells stops working. It also may expand how many wells they could use and filter.
Construction of those treatment plants is expected to take at least a couple years.
In the meantime, the Air Force has pledged to help the water districts install, operate and maintain well filters connected to the aquifer, or to buy clean water from elsewhere.
In Security, for example, the Air Force will pay for extra water for a year from the Pueblo Reservoir that's needed to avoid the aquifer.
Already, the water district has spent $6 million of its reserves, leading the district's leaders to raise rates this year for the first time since the water crisis began. Customers' bills went up about 15 percent, Heald said.
The new Air Force help only stops the bleeding. But even that is "huge" progress, he said.
"That'll be a big relief," Heald added. "Our summer demand is just starting now, and that's when we'll need the most relief from paying those bills. So it'll come at a real good time."
Widefield is getting up to about $606,000 to operate and maintain its new ion exchange water treatment facility for the next year. And it's also getting two new manifolds as part of the original $4.3 million pledged nearly two years ago by the Air Force, as part of its initial response to the crisis, said Brandon Bernard, Widefield's Water and Sanitation District's water department manager.
Fountain is in the process of testing and turning on its two Air Force-provided water filters, which rely on granular-activated carbon to remove the toxic compounds.
The first filter is expected to be operational in a few weeks, said Curtis Mitchell, the city's utilities director. And a new agreement will pay for operation and maintenance of those filters for a year - costs that otherwise would have fallen to ratepayers.
"It's quite a contrast," Mitchell said.
Once both are operational, Fountain's water delivery capacity is expected to return to 100 percent for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
Registry for those exposed?
But cleaning the water that's flowing to local taps addresses just one consequence of the pollution.
Lamborn said he's beginning to ponder the long-term health impacts of the perfluorinated compounds found in firefighting foam.
The Republican lawmaker is pushing an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill that would establish a registry for troops exposed to the foam.
Initially, the registry would allow military and VA health experts to give veterans information on the health impacts of the foam, which has been linked to numerous maladies, including high cholesterol and forms of cancer.
"I want to make sure people who have been exposed can get timely information," Lamborn said.
Over the long term, though, similar registries have been used to parse out compensation for troops exposed to other toxic hazards, including Vietnam vets who were exposed to the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange.
Lamborn said the jury is still out on perfluorinated compounds, but health worries remain.
"The potential is there," he said.
The potential for health trouble is driving another Lamborn effort to get El Paso County water users included in a wider federal study of the health effects of exposure to perfluorinated compounds.
The military and the Department of Health and Human Services are expected to make final selections of communities for the study, a years-long effort to discern the impacts of the chemicals.
"I want to have El Paso County on that list," Lamborn said.