@csindependent: A toxic water supply has left beloved Venetucci Farm in limbo

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

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

To say that the 2016 season didn’t go well for Venetucci Farm is an understatement.

It was historically bad, but not for lack of rain or a pest infestation or anything that farmers are accustomed to dealing with. First, toxic chemicals discovered in the farm’s water supply in May prompted the suspension of produce sales mid-season. Then, at season’s end, a brutal hail storm wiped out the remaining solace of Venetucci’s fans — its hallmark pumpkin crop.

News isn’t improving. In a normal year, planting would be coming up in late March, but operations on the farm are currently stalled. This could be the first season in over a century that area consumers go without fresh, local food from the region’s oldest working farm.

Uncertainty reigns. Nobody knows the full consequences of irrigating crops with water containing perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) at levels above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking. And then there’s the question of who will own and run Venetucci Farm, which was entrusted to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in 2006 by Bambina “Bambi” Venetucci after the 2004 death of her husband, local farmer Dominico “Nick” Venetucci.

Bambi passed away in 2015 with the desire and belief that the family’s land would carry on in perpetuity as a working farm that welcomes schoolchildren to come pick pumpkins, free of charge, every fall. (Their generosity remains legendary — there’s a statue of Nick next to the Pioneers Museum and a depiction of him gifting a pumpkin on the label of Bristol Brewing Company’s highly popular annual Venetucci Pumpkin Ale.)

But, even before the water crisis arose, PPCF, under new leadership, had begun reevaluating all of its legacy assets, including Venetucci Farm. Over the past few months, an advisory committee has been meeting to vet visions for a post-PPCF Venetucci, with a recommendation expected in early March. The board will take it from there — without any chance for public input.

Whatever the foundation decides to do with the farm, recently installed CEO Gary Butterworth is unequivocal that the legacy of Nick and Bambi Venetucci will carry on. But no matter who stewards it into the future, their legacy may already be tainted by decades of chemical build-up in the aquifer beneath the farm.

Indeed, none of this sits well with longtime consumers like across-the-street neighbor Brittany McCollough. She’s less worried about what’s in the water — “everything’s poison these days,” she notes dryly — and more worried that those who actually eat Venetucci-grown food no longer have a seat at the table.

“It seems like the ‘community’ part has been taken out of ‘community foundation,'” she says, telling the Independent that “[consumers] have been left in the dark even though we’re impacted the most.” A teacher during the school year, McCollough helps run Venetucci’s farm stand over the summers, distributing weekly boxes of produce to community-supported agriculture (CSA) members in exchange for her own share. She’s been getting fresh vegetables for herself and her young son this way for about seven years. For her, all the extraneous factors affecting the farm are beside the point. “There are so many choices to make in the world and knowing the people who grow my food, right across the street in my own watershed — that’s really important to me,” she says.

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

Scientists from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Axys, a private lab in Canada, all came to the farm to investigate. They took water, soil, plant and meat samples to test for PFC content. It took months for results to come back, and even then, their data took the form of raw numbers — not risk assessment, which is what the farm really needed.

For an official interpretation of the results, Venetucci counted on the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Mike Van Dyke was willing to oblige, since he had received multiple inquiries from citizens who wanted to know whether food grown with PFC-contaminated water was safe. There just wasn’t much research out there.

“If it were something like lead, that’s more common and actually regulated, there’d be a framework out there,” he tells the Indy. “But basically what we did was the School of Mines had done some research on uptake of PFCs by fruits and vegetables. So they’ve developed models saying, ‘If you have x amount in soil and x amount in water, you’re likely to end up with x amount in the vegetables.”

So he and his team looked at the data those other labs had previously collected, picking out the highest concentrations to use in their analysis.

“We used maximums, not averages, to kind of get a worst case scenario,” Van Dyke says. “The idea was to get a conservative estimate at first, then become more lenient over time if we get additional data that warrants it.”

For the other variables, the team borrowed federal standards: EPA’s drinking water advisory for the acceptable limit of PFCs and USDA’s recommendations for daily food consumption. (That’s three vegetable servings and two fruit servings for children, and one more of each for adults. A serving equates to 100 grams of vegetables and 150 grams of fruit.)

Given all that, CDPHE found that eating the federally-recommended amount of Venetucci’s produce, even with the highest possible uptake levels, likely won’t expose you to dangerous levels of PFCs. And in reality, let’s admit it, most people get their produce from different sources and don’t eat enough of it.

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