A water filter system being delivered in Fountain, Colorado to purge PFC contamination in the town south of Colorado Springs on June 29, 2017.
COLORADO SPRINGS — Colorado health officials grappling with groundwater contamination from firefighting foam — containing a toxic chemical the federal government allows — have proposed to set a state limit to prevent more problems.
A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment limit for the perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) also could give leverage in compelling cleanup by the Air Force, which has confirmed high levels of PFCs spreading from a military air base east of Colorado Springs. More than 65,000 residents who relied on the underground Widefield Aquifer as a water source have had to find alternative supplies or install new water-cleaning systems as a plume of PFCs contamination moves south through the Fountain Valley watershed.
“We need to be able to have not just a carrot, but a stick,” CDPHE environmental toxicologist Kristy Richardson said last week, discussing the effort to set a state limit.
The proposed maximum allowable level of 70 parts per trillion in groundwater — matching a health advisory level the Environmental Protection Agency declared in May 2016 for two types of PFCs — wouldn’t be finalized until April, Richardson said. A boundary has yet to be drawn for where the limit would apply.
But such regulatory action could help state officials navigate a complex environmental problem. Other states have set PFC limits as scientists raise concerns about PFCs, which have been linked to health harm, including low birth weights and kidney and testicular cancers. Few public health studies have been done, even though people south of Colorado Springs apparently have ingested PFCs for years in public drinking water.
An Air Force investigation confirmed contamination of groundwater by PFCs used in the aqueous film-forming foam that fire departments widely use to put out fuel fires, such as those caused by airplane crashes. PFCs also are found widely in consumer products, including stain-proof carpet, microwave popcorn bags and grease-resistant fast-food wrappers.
The chemical properties that make make PFCs useful keep them from breaking down once spilled, especially in water. Scientists say people and wildlife worldwide have been exposed at low levels.
At the Peterson Air Force Base, PFCs contamination of groundwater has been measured at levels up to 88,000 ppt with soil contamination levels as high as 240,000 ppt. And Richardson said PFC levels in water south of Colorado Springs — communities including Security, Widefield, Fountain, Stratmoor Hills, Garden Valley and the Security Mobile Home Park — were measured at a median level of 120 ppt — well above the EPA health advisory limit.
Richardson favored a broad area for the groundwater limit — “so that maybe we can begin to look at other sources. … My biggest concern is the extent” of the plume, she said.
Public meetings with state health rule-makers are planned, she said.
Meanwhile, making and using PFCs remains legal. These rank among the worst of hundreds of unregulated chemicals that federal scientists are detecting in drinking-water supplies, including hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and antidepressants.
U.S. Department of Defense officials have promised to spend billions on cleanup nationwide after required municipal water system tests showed at least 108 sites where PFCs contaminated water supplies.
Yet in Colorado, where a relatively large population has been affected, tests to track the underground plume of contamination have ceased. Initial CDPHE-funded tests identified a plume spreading southward, beyond Widefield, Security and Fountain, through the Fountain Valley. A state website shows no groundwater tests have been done since February and that drinking water hasn’t been tested since November.
And the blood tests that state health agencies elsewhere have supported for residents exposed to PFCs over long periods have not been offered in Colorado.
A group of Fountain Valley residents is calling for testing and planning to hear from health researchers.
PFCs contamination here hits hard, Richardson said. “We are living in the arid West. We don’t have a lot of other alternative sources of water we can tap.”
CDPHE officials have blamed the end of PFC monitoring tests on lack of money. President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have targeted the federal EPA budget. And states including Colorado — where the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights limits state abilities to increase revenues — rely on EPA grants for up to a third of their budgets, essential to conduct air and water tests for protecting people from toxic pollution.
Former EPA water quality expert Carol Campbell, who worked in the EPA’s Denver office for three decades and served as assistant regional administrator, said proposed EPA budget cuts could mean the sort of action that exposed environmental degradation at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal won’t be possible in the future.
“If that 30 percent is cut — and it may be more — it could cause a serious problem,” Campbell said.
“You could end up with the PFCs plume moving. You wouldn’t know it. It could move to where you are not already providing alternative sources of water. And you could have more people exposed.”