Three new water treatment plants in Fountain, Security and Widefield needed to remove toxic "forever chemicals" from the groundwater, carrying a heavy price tag of $41 million, are nearing completion.
The plant in Widefield was finished in February, the Security plant is expected to be operational this week and the Fountain plant is expected to be complete in June, following a pause in construction that lasted more than a month, officials with each district said.
Construction of the Fountain plant was halted because the supplier of critical piping for the plant could not provide it, said Dan Blankenship, utilities director for Fountain, adding that the supplier's work was delayed by the coronavirus. In a written statement the Air Force Civil Engineer Center said work on the $7 million plant in Fountain is expected to resume May 3. The other two plants are expected to cost a combined $34 million, the statement said.
The Air Force is paying for the water treatment plants that will remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from groundwater because investigations showed the contamination came from Peterson Air Force Base, where firefighters used a foam rich in one of those compounds for decades to put out aircraft fires. The compounds can build up in the body and may cause health problems like higher cholesterol levels and an increased risk for some cancers, among other effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Water providers stopped using the groundwater after the contamination was discovered in 2015 and 2016, and studies are still ongoing to learn about the long-term health consequences of the contamination. The compounds' ability to stay in the body led to their nickname "forever chemicals."
Encouraging results from one of the studies conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines showed that the amount of chemicals in blood samples taken from 53 exposed residents dropped from 2018 to 2019, according to a presentation of results. The median level of the chemical most closely associated with firefighting foam dropped 50% in the participants, results showed.
"These results, I think, are encouraging in that levels have gone down in almost everyone we have looked at," said Professor John Adgate, with the Colorado School of Public Health, in a recorded presentation of results.
The new treatment plants are meant to protect the public from additional exposure to the chemicals and allow the districts in some cases to return to using a key water source.
In Security, the new plant was tested in December, and water samples showed it was removing problematic chemicals down to undetectable levels, said Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Crews haven't been able to turn the plant on because of sediment in the system that could interfere with the treatment process, he said.
He is hopeful the system will be fully operational this week. But the plant has been on the verge of becoming operational for a while, he said.
Security's groundwater wells can supply about half the water needed to serve the system's approximately 6,700 water taps, which serve 20,000 residents, he said. To help make up for the loss of that water, the Security district leased water from Colorado Springs Utilities and that agreement was recently extended, he said.
"We are in a great situation because we have that available," Heald said.
For Widefield, the new plant will be its third, and all the new plants are based on a technology that Widefield helped pioneer in 2017, District Manager Lucas Hale said in an email.
In Fountain, the new water treatment plant will be the first one owned by the city, Blankenship said. The community's primary water source is the Fountain Valley Authority, which treats water from Pueblo reservoir, he said.
It's a system that could see it's customer base of 8,700 water taps multiply by four or five times over the next 25 years, he said. But Fountain would require developers to cover the costs of expanding the water system to serve thousands of new customers, he said. Fountain has current capacity to serve the equivalent of 500 single-family homes, he said.
"I am not exaggerating when I say we’ve been inundated with requests," he said.