firefighting foam

Bridgette Swaney and her daughter, Addison, 4, use the last of their bottled water to make mint tea at their Widefield home on Oct. 6, 2016. High levels of perfluorinated compounds, believed to be from a firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base, were found in the water systems of Security, Widefield and Fountain, forcing residents to drink bottled water.

A bill that bans the kind of firefighting foam that has contaminated water supplies in southern El Paso County has cleared the Colorado state House and is on its way to the Senate.

House Bill 1279 is sponsored by a bipartisan quartet of El Paso County lawmakers, including its House sponsors, Democratic Rep. Tony Exum and Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf. In the Senate, the bill's sponsors are Democratic Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs and Republican Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain.

The bill would ban Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. Such chemicals were used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base in the county and have been found in the contaminated Widefield aquifer, which serves Security, Widefield and Fountain, all 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.

The Air Force has since replaced that foam with a new version that the military says is less toxic and more environmentally friendly, though it still contains perfluorinated chemicals.

Under the bill, fire departments would be banned from using such foam for training exercises beginning Aug. 2. A first offense would result in a $5,000 fine, with the fine rising to $10,000 for subsequent offenses. Firefighters’ protective gear would be barred from containing the chemicals.

House Bill 1279 was amended by the House on Wednesday to address concerns by the Department of Defense, according to Exum. As amended, the bill's restrictions do not apply to circumstances where the foam is allowed by federal law or required for military purposes.

The amended bill also allows for its use at "gasoline or special fuel storage or distribution facilities that are supplied by pipelines, vessels or refineries," and tank farms.

This bill "is a start to help clean up some of our bad drinking water, and a start to keeping our firefighters safer," said Exum. "But that's not to say these issues won't be found elsewhere," said Landgraf, "especially if we don't pass a bill that stops the use of these products in training."

"Everything in our water system ends up running together," added Democratic Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, who noted the water from Fountain winds up in the Arkansas River and in the farmlands of her district.

Despite earlier misgivings by some lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs, who voted against the bill in the House Energy and Environment committee, the bill won a unanimous 64-0 vote on Thursday. Liston said on Wednesday that he supported the amendment as it addressed his concerns about the military.

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