PFC pollution’s 800 pound gorilla — what are the costs for clean up?

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command
Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):

Government agencies are just beginning to scratch the surface of costs incurred by a frustratingly hardy, toxic chemical polluting waterways across the U.S.

Air Force officials already expect to spend more than $400 million to study the chemical’s use in a firefighting foam at nearly 200 sites and replace it. Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy are on that list.

And on a local level, officials for water districts serving Security, Widefield and Fountain say they also may have to pay millions of dollars upgrading their water systems over the next few years to filter it out of tap water.

The tabs are expected to grow, and they don’t include costs associated with cleanup efforts. In one such project, the Air Force will pay $4.3 million to help filter well water across southeast El Paso County.

Nor does that tally include similar assessment efforts being conducted by the Navy and Army as well as clean up efforts in many other communities across the nation. One such study at Fort Carson had yet to start as of Wednesday.

All of it is for a chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency says may cause health ailments at levels no greater than a drop of water in a string of railroad tank cars 10 miles long.

“The fact that it doesn’t go away – it doesn’t degrade naturally, it stays in the environment – is a cause for concern,” said Daniel Medina, who is heading up the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s response.

The substance, called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, remains unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the EPA has grown increasingly concerned about the substance.

In May, the EPA’s health advisory level dropped to 70 parts per trillion – leaving every well used by water districts in Security, Widefield and Fountain above the new limit.

The advisory was tailored to ensure it protected the most sensitive population – in this case, developing fetuses and breast-fed and bottle-fed infants. That means people using water below that level should not expect health effects, even if drinking that water over a lifetime, state and federal health officials said at a town hall Thursday.

Communities across the U.S. are grappling with the chemical.

To mitigate residents’ exposure here, local water officials have relied more heavily on surface water pumped in from the Pueblo Reservoir.

Doing so has limited the number of people receiving contaminated tap water to 10,000 to 15,000, said Tyson Ingels, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division.

Officials running local water districts are working to drop that number to zero, though it may take time. Projects underway or in development are unlikely to change how many people receive PFC-laden water this summer, water district officials say (see accompanying report).

In the meantime, people receiving water above the EPA’s new limit should consider other water sources – especially women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as infants, a Colorado health department official said Thursday.

The exact source of the PFCs in the Widefield aquifer remains unclear, though an Air Force official recently said that the chemicals possibly originated at Peterson Air Force Base.

From 1970 through the mid-1990s, firefighters at the base used a type of foam laden with the chemicals while training to extinguish high-intensity fires, such as during plane crashes.

Ever since then, firefighter have trained using water in a lined basin. It still has the firefighting foam that contains PFCs, but it is only used in emergency situations, Medina said.

The Air Force has spent more than $137 million through Thursday as part of an effort to study 191 sites across the nation where the foam is believed to have been used, Medina said. They include active duty and National Guard installations, as well as decommissioned bases.

So far, assessments have been completed at 96 percent of those sites, he said.

The Air Force also expects to spend another $271 million incinerating that foam and replacing it with another substance, Medina said. That effort is underway at Peterson, base officials said.

The price tag is expected to grow as more thorough assessments are ordered across the nation.

At Peterson, for example, officials plan to drill monitoring wells to pinpoint the source, and a draft report is due in March 2017.

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.