Military firefighting foam and water safety: Sen. Bennet demands release of study

 A huge amount of fire retardant foam was unintentionally released in an aircraft hangar at Travis Air Force Base, California. Such foams contain PFAS, and are now banned from training exercises.

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, part of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, announced Wednesday the approval of a new policy to reduce the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, a chemical found in firefighting foam.

Among the most serious problems caused by PFAS in Colorado: contaminated well water supplies in El Paso County, most notably in the Widefield aquifer that serves the communities of Fountain, Widefield and Security.

The policy "will provide the department with clear guardrails for setting wastewater discharge permit limits on the chemicals released into local waterways. It also provides time for city and county wastewater treatment plants to work to reduce the chemicals from industries that use them and that discharge their wastewater with these chemicals into local sewer systems," according to a CDPHE statement.

In October 2015, the city of Fountain shut down its wells due to PFAS and had to replace it with water from the Pueblo Reservoir. A year later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that water in the Widefield aquifer exceeded a health standard for perfluorinated compounds of 70 parts per trillion, which required the construction of a new water treatment plant that could deal with PFAS.

In June 2018, the city began treating its groundwater with granular-activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Peterson Air Force Base had been using PFAS for years in firefighting training at the nearby Colorado Springs airport, which led to the contamination of the Widefield aquifer. The city of Fountain began construction of a new groundwater treatment plant, in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a year ago.

PFAS exposure has been linked to cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society.

But delays by the EPA in developing a standard for surface or groundwater limits on PFAS has now prompted the state's water quality commission to take action of its own. The new policy has been in the works since February.

It's not without its detractors, including a nine-member group known as AF CURE (the Arkansas Fountain Coalition for Urban and River Evaluation). That group includes Colorado Springs Utilities; the sanitation districts for Fountain, Security and Widefield; and the Tri-Lakes water district. The group claimed the policy is more stringent than existing state policy on groundwater standards and would control decision-making for groundwater discharge for central El Paso County, in the vicinity of Fountain Creek.

AF CURE claimed the policy addresses "parent" PFAS compounds with no known toxicity. The policy would also present challenges to public utilities projects, including costs, according to a group presentation Tuesday.

Colorado Springs Utilities said it has spent $120,000 for PFAS testing in the past eight months, including installing 21 monitoring wells. The water quality division failed to fully look at the economic impact of the policy, the group said. "Do not adopt Policy 20-1 as drafted. There are many unaddressed issues wih significant complications." And doing the policy through a rulemaking hearing, instead of the administrative hearing held Tuesday, would allow for a "more robust cost/benefit analyses."

The Colorado Monitoring Framework is a nonprofit comprised of water utilities and municipal governments focused on scientific and collaborative process to protect water quality. While they agreed that action needed to be taken, a rulemaking hearing would be the more appropriate venue and complained the policy was rushed through the process.

Even the Sierra Club found reasons to object to the policy. Other states have adopted more protective standards, the Club said in a letter submitted for the Tuesday hearing. In addition, the policy's "translation level" at 70 parts per trillion is too high and poses a risk to children and pregnant women.

Additional comments received by the Water Quality Control Division presented a list of pros and cons to the policy. Among the pros: a sense of urgency and that this is only a first step. Those opposed cited legal concerns, economic impacts, and how the policy would be implemented.

The Water Quality Control Division said what's known about PFAS in Colorado is not enough:

  • 50% of community systems have unknown levels of PFAS in drinking water
  • 96% of community water systems haven’t had their sources tested
  • 95% of surface water segments have not been tested, which leads to questions about how PFAS impacts fish, livestock and crops
  • 20% of Colorado’s population relies on private wells, yet nearly none have been tested, and shallow wells are a higher risk.

John Putnam, environmental programs director for the CDPHE, said in a statement Wednesday that "we can’t wait for the EPA to come up with guidance; it would take too long. We need to take action now using the most current and best information available so we can start getting a better sense of the level of exposure we have in our state and to take the necessary steps to protect Coloradans from being more at risk."

The Water Quality Control Division recently collected 71 samples from rivers and streams around Colorado, and every one of them showed at least some detectable levels of PFAS. A sample collected at the mouth of Sand Creek in Commerce City showed a level of 77 parts per trillion, which exceeded the EPA's drinking water limit of 70 parts per trillion. 

While the commission statement said they were unaware that anyone was drinking that water, it's still a concern since PFAS doesn't break down and can impact downstream drinking water supplies.

The sampling data indicates that industrial companies that have discharge permits for wastewater may be playing a role in the buildup of PFAS in water supplies. There are several companies that treat and discharge wastewater into Sand Creek, according to the commission statement.

“We are still learning about these chemicals and the level of risk they pose," according to Nicole Rowan, CDPHE's clean water program manager. “This policy will help guide the state in determining which chemicals to monitor for, what the limits for those chemicals should be, and what conditions need to be put in place for permittees so we limit the level of the chemicals going into our surface and groundwater.”

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