WASHINGTON — Cleaning up the kind of toxic chemicals found in drinking water in a Colorado community and elsewhere would take years and cost billions of dollars, witnesses at a congressional hearing said Wednesday.
A House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on the environment held the hearing to determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency is taking adequate steps to get rid of perfluorinated compounds, like those found in the area of the city of Fountain, near Colorado Springs, and tied to a firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base.
The chemicals have been linked to, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, birth defects, liver disease and increased risk for thyroid disease and cancer.
The substances sometimes are known as "forever chemicals" because of their tendency to take thousands of years to break down. They also are known to stay in the human body for decades after they are ingested.
A recent study by University of Colorado Health Sciences researchers south of Colorado Springs found perfluorinated compounds in the blood of 200 residents as much as 10 times higher than the national norm.
The Environmental Protection Agency has traced the chemicals to the Petersen base, where they were mixed into a firefighting foam to extinguish jet fuel fires. Afterward, they filtered into Widefield Aquifer, impacting drinking water for Security, Widefield and Fountain.
Although communities using the aquifer are now filtering out the perfluroinated compounds, the chemical remains in the groundwater and soil.
“The cleanup ... right now is going to add approximately $2 billion to our existing liability of $27 billion,” said Maureen Sullivan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment, during the congressional hearing.
This year, her budget for chemical cleanup is slightly over $1 billion.
She was a key witness at the hearing, where subcommittee chairman Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., said the Defense Department had “woefully inadequate funding” for the cleanup.
"There's no indication of when the process might actually be complete," Rouda said.
The Defense Department has identified 401 military sites with known or potential releases of perfluorinated compounds, largely from years of using firefighting foam.
The chemicals are largely unregulated by the government and widely used by industry. Their tendency to repel grease and water compelled chemical companies to use them for food packaging, clothing, non-stick pans and furniture.
As many as 10 million Americans might have ingested at least small amounts of thechemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The EPA announced last month that it would develop limits for the chemicals in drinking water. First, the EPA wants to continue studying the problem.
"The science to fully understand these chemicals ... is not yet as robust as it needs to be," said David Ross, assistant administrator of the EPA's water office.
Some of the alarms about chemicals arose from a federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report last year that said the chemicals were harmful at much lower levels than anticipated by the EPA.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, said perfluorinated compounds present "one of the most widespread public health crises" facing the United States. He added that modifying the nation’s water treatment facilities to filter the chemicals could cost tens of billions of dollars.
Some states, such as New Mexico, accuse the military of evading the need to control the chemicals while the federal government lacks a clear environmental standard. New Mexico this week sued the Air Force for contamination near two bases in the state.