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.

Over the past three days, House and Senate committees have been putting an end to dozens of bills left over from the first two months of the 2020 legislative session. Few survive the ax.

But Thursday, a bill on firefighting chemicals won unanimous support from the House Finance Committee.

HB 1119 was approved by the House Energy and Environment Committee on March 9, before the General Assembly shut down for 10 weeks due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

According to bill co-sponsor Rep. Lois Landgraf, a Colorado Springs Republican, the measure is a fix of sorts for legislation that passed in 2019 and which banned the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known collectively as PFAS.

The 2019 law banned Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Those chemicals were used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base in El Paso County and have been found in the Widefield aquifer, which serves Security, Widefield and Fountain, communities near the base.

The foam was sprayed on the ground and used for years in a firefighting training area that was flushed into the Colorado Springs Utilities treatment system, which was ill-equipped to remove the chemicals. The effluent ended up in Fountain Creek, which feeds the Widefield aquifer.

Fire departments are prohibited under the 2019 law from using PFAS foam for training exercises. Firefighters’ protective gear also cannot contain the chemicals.

But a problem surfaced after the 2019 law was passed, and that had to do with airline insurance.

Last year's bill created the clean water process for PFAS, Landgraf said. "What we didn't realize is that it also eliminated the ability of the airports to stay in business. United could not get their insurance because we banned any use of PFAS. They have to practice with it a couple of times every year to keep their insurance in place," Landgraf said. 

What the 2020 measure does is allow the testing to take place in airline hangars. The runoff will be captured in catch basins and then taken out and disposed of. 

The bill also requires a the state's solid and hazardous waste commission within CDPHE to come up with a certificate for any facility — like an airport — or firefighting department that shows PFAS is present on the premises.

Landgraf said the certificate will help the state track where PFAS is located. "Right now we don't know who's using it and not using it," she said. 

The bill as originally introduced had a lot of things that Landgraf didn't like and that she said came out of language provided by Gov. Jared Polis' administration. 

That included a provision that granted the CDPHE the power to adopt and enforce standards and regulations that require public drinking water systems to sample drinking water supply sources and finished drinking water for PFAS. That provision was taken out in March.

The Colorado Aviation Association backs the bill in its current form, according to lobbyist Kelly Sloan, who pointed out that the use of PFAS is on its way out. The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to phase out the use of PFAS at airports, but for now, airports still have to comply with those federal regulations, he said.

In a statement, co-sponsor Rep. Tony Exum, a Colorado Springs Democrat, said that “PFAS is a highly dangerous chemical that puts our firefighters and communities at risk. Our firefighters deserve better. This bill will help us identify all the facilities that use PFAS substances and ensure that they are tested, collected and disposed of properly.”

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.

The Landgraf/Exum bill is one of the lucky ones, on a list developed by House Democrats that identifies the bills from the first two months of the session that are a priority for passage in the session's remaining weeks. 

A similar priority list has been released by Senate Democrats. 

Notable among the bills that aren't on the lists, although lawmakers are still trying to find ways to reduce costs and keep their measures alive:

  • House Bill 1153, a bill to allow the state employees' union, Colorado Wins, to engage in collective bargaining with the state. The measure is up for second reading in the Senate, but it also carries a $2 million cost. 
  • Senate Bill 163, the second attempt to deal with the state's low immunization rates. 
  • House Bill 1163, which bans single-use plastics, such as grocery bags, straws. A similar measure, HB 1162, which bans Styrofoam food containers, also didn't make the list; and
  • Senate Bill 138, which opponents had said would undo work on the state's construction defects law.

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