USAF identifies sources of groundwater contamination for Widefield aquifer

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder and Jakob Rodgers):

The Air Force on Tuesday acknowledged potential guilt in fouling the drinking water of thousands of its neighbors but offered no apology and said work on a federal remediation plan likely would not begin until sometime in the 2020s.

In a first-of-its-kind admission for the service, Air Force investigators confirmed that toxic firefighting foam chemicals used at Peterson Air Force Base had leached into the surrounding groundwater. To fix the problem, Air Force officials are proceeding under a process similar to the federal Superfund program – a yearslong procedure for cleaning up complex environmental contamination. No Superfund designation, however, has been made.

The findings were outlined in a report unveiled Tuesday that examined dozens of soil and water tests over the last year at the east Colorado Springs base.

Over and over, investigators for the report issued the same warning: “There is the potential for a complete groundwater pathway for human receptors.”

At a news conference later Tuesday, Air Force Col. Todd Moore gave no apology but framed the report as an attempt to be transparent about what had transpired in decades of training with the foam. He vowed to cooperate with the community in finding a solution.

“There’s still more to learn,” Moore said.

A final determination about what needs to be done probably won’t come until the completion of another study, which won’t begin until 2019 and still needs congressional approval for funding, said Cornell Long, of the Air Force Civil Engineering Center in San Antonio.

Federal remediation work will push into the next decade, he added, though some help may arrive before then.

“There could be points where you take interim measures,” he said.

Several local elected and water officials expressed disappointment Tuesday at the prospect of a years-long wait for help…

A Gazette investigation last fall revealed a string of Air Force studies and other military research dating to the late 1970s that warned that the chemicals – known as perfluorinated compounds – were linked to ailments in laboratory animals including cancer, liver disease and low infant birth weight, a leading cause of infant mortality.

Tuesday’s report detailed several sites where Peterson firefighters sprayed the toxic foam directly on the ground since the 1970s.

The contamination appeared worst in the base’s current firefighting training pit, which had a plastic liner designed to guard against leaching.

The cause: “Overspray” from firefighters, investigators said.

The chemicals there measured at about 88,000 parts per trillion – several thousand times the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.

But the report gave only passing mention to a central path for such chemicals to reach the aquifer.

Investigators admitted pumping contaminated waste into Colorado Springs sewers, but they downplayed that as a contributor to toxic drinking water.

“The holding tank is occasionally drained into the sanitary sewer system, but such events are rare,” the report said, adding each release totaled 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of chemical-laden wastewater.

That admission was in stark contrast to previous statements by Peterson officials.

Last year, base leaders acknowledged pumping foam-tainted water from the lined fire pit, storing it in a nearby tank and dumping it about three times a year into Colorado Springs sewers.

The years-long practice likely made it easy for the chemicals to flood the nearby Widefield Aquifer.

That’s because the chemicals are not removed while passing through the Colorado Springs Utilities’ treatment plant. From there, the plant feeds into Fountain Creek – the aquifer’s primary water source.

The last such publicly acknowledged wastewater release from the base happened last August, and Air Force officials said Tuesday they capped the route leading to the city’s sewer system.

Colorado Springs Utilities has no records of ever authorizing the Air Force to release the chemical-laden wastewater into its sewer system, and its leaders have told Peterson officials not to do so, said Steve Berry, a Utilities spokesman.

Berry said it is “possible” that Utilities permitted such releases years ago, when the science surrounding these chemicals was “incomplete or unknown.”

The releases weren’t included in Tuesday’s study, because the investigation only planned to look at on-base contamination sites, Long said. Instead, the wastewater discharges will be in the follow-up investigation slated to begin in 2019.

The latest report also failed to mention the toxic firefighting foam’s use inside a half-dozen hangars at Peterson.

An earlier report said investigation wasn’t required for the hangars because the toxic foam was routed into city sewers.

Ratepayers may be on hook

The report comes more than a year into a water crisis that sent thousands of people rushing to buy bottled water in 2016 while their water districts spent millions of dollars to rid their drinking water of the chemicals.

Local water officials since have turned to new water sources or have installed new treatment systems to remove the toxic chemicals from the Widefield Aquifer water. But some water district leaders have criticized the Air Force’s plodding response, and millions of dollars in help pledged by the Air Force has yet to arrive in the coffers of local water districts. Ratepayers also may be on the hook for many of those fixes, because remediation costs have far outpaced military aid.

Many residents teed off on the Air Force at a community open house accompanying the report’s release Tuesday – deriding the years-long timeline for aid.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Military engineers still aren’t sure how far and wide PFC pollution has spread

Air Force officials pledged to conduct further investigations that, sometime after 2019, may include analysis of human health risks. This initial investigation focused on contamination at the base. The spread of contaminants to where tens of thousands of people live remains a mystery, the officials said.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment leaders have said the state was waiting on the Air Force for information on how far and how fast PFCs have moved. El Paso County and CDPHE officials at a public meeting here Tuesday night said their agencies lack money to track the PFCs moving in groundwater at unknown concentrations south toward Pueblo…

Security Water and Sanitation District manager Roy Heald said his agency spent $3.6 million on pipelines and purchases of alternative clean water supplies after municipal wells were contaminated but has yet to receive a promised $800,000 in reimbursements from the Air Force…

Air Force engineers found PFC contamination of groundwater at the Peterson base east of Colorado Springs reached levels up to 88,000 parts per trillion, and that soil contamination reached as high as 240,000 ppt, based on testing of 23 water samples and 33 soil samples at seven sites on the base. They confirmed that the use of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, which helps put out fuel fires, led to runoff of the PFCs into water tapped by tens of thousands of residents south of Colorado Springs but said they do not know to what extent it has spread or how long it will last.

The Air Force investigation report — more than 600 pages — also blamed other unspecified sources of PFC contamination, reiterating the stance military officials have taken in the year since news organizations revealed that PFCs had contaminated municipal drinking water supplies.

“PFCs are found widely in the environment today, and there are likely other contributors to the contamination,” the report summary says. “As we continue our work with the public water suppliers in the Fountain, Widefield and Security area, we will study remediation steps, as other potential contributors are investigated.”

[…]

Air Force engineers in October began investigating to determine sources of the PFCs that state and local water tests had shown to be spreading from the base, including an area where firefighters trained. PFCs have been linked to health harm — low birth weights and kidney and testicular cancers — but public health epidemiological work in Colorado has not been done. A senior Pentagon official announced that the Air Force would spend $2 billion on PFC cleanups nationwide.

From KRDO.com (Colleen Sikora):

Some water samples collected for the study were more than 200 times the EPA’s standard of 70 parts per trillion.

The base said it has taken steps to replace the foam with a synthetic foam and are working to top the spread of PFCs to other areas.

“Making sure that the community is aware that within the bounds that we’ve been able to eliminate this contaminate, we’ve taken that action and then likewise as we learn more and move forward with that,” 21st Space Wing Commander Col. Todd R. Moore said.

From the Associated Press via US News & World Report:

Base leaders have previously acknowledged dumping wastewater contaminated with foam into Colorado Springs’ sewers three times a year, which likely made it easy for the chemicals to flow into the nearby Widefield Aquifer, a key source of water for the city of Fountain.

But while the report acknowledged the releases, it downplayed that as a contributor to toxic drinking water.

In May, state health officials said they had yet to find any other possible source of the contamination of the aquifer other than the foam, which airmen have used for firefighting training since the 1970s.

On Tuesday, Air Force officials met privately with local officials, including key staffers of Colorado’s congressional delegation, El Paso County commissioners, city staffers, state and county environmental agency officials and representatives of Pikes Peak region water districts.

Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said he left the meeting frustrated that the investigation was not more all-encompassing…

The mayor added that Air Force officials did not say when they would send the $4.3 million in aid promised last year, or if they would more fully reimburse communities burdened with treating the tainted water.

A Gazette investigation last fall revealed a string of Air Force studies and other military research dating to the late 1970s warning of the foam’s danger. The chemicals have been linked to ailments including cancer, liver disease and low infant birth weight.

Tuesday’s report comes more than a year into a water crisis that sent residents rushing to buy bottled water in 2016 while their water districts spent millions of dollars to rid their drinking water of the chemicals, known as perfluorinated compounds.

Local water officials have since turned to new water sources or installed new treatment systems to remove the toxic chemicals from the Widefield Aquifer water.

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

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