Denver drainage carries contaminants into waterways at levels up to 137 times higher than federal safety limit
Colorado health officials this week declared water quality in the South Platte River as it flows through Denver highly deficient, pointing to E.coli contamination at levels up to 137 times higher than a federal safety limit.
This intestinal bacteria indicates fecal matter and other pollution from runoff after melting snow and rain sweeps Denver pollution through drainage pipes into the river. To deal with the problem, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has imposed, in a permit taking effect next month, stricter requirements for managing runoff water pollution.
But Denver officials are fighting those requirements and twice petitioned the state health department to relax the new permit.
“What the new requirements do is drastically increase the amount of expensive system maintenance beyond what could make a meaningful impact on E.coli concentrations,” city spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said.
Colorado public health officials last month rejected Denver’s latest appeal. They issued a statement standing by their demands for the city to reduce its water pollution, saying the agency hopes to avoid litigation.
A more aggressive approach is required, state health officials said in the statement, “because the South Platte remains in bad shape for pathogens.”
Denver officials told The Denver Post on Wednesday “no lawsuit has been filed” challenging the permit in state court and that they are “having conversations with the state on five or so new requirements with the hope of reaching compromise.”
“Denver’s storm sewer system is a clear part of the problem,” CDPHE permitting officials said in an email. When inspectors in 2019 sampled water flowing out of city drainage “outfall” pipes into the South Platte, they detected E.coli at levels as high as 1,970 cfu from one pipe and 8,400 cfu from another, state data shows…
“Denver has never opposed the numeric limit of 126 cfu per 100 milliliters,” [Nancy Kuhn] said, but opposes “the specific measures that CDPHE is mandating to achieve that limit.”
A consultant analyzing Denver stormwater runoff in 2018 proposed, in a document included in a 419-page state fact sheet accompanying the new permit, a comprehensive effort to slow down drainage flows, treating runoff water as a useful resource for re-greening in a semi-arid area. He recommended wide use of low-cost measures such as flattening crowned streets, installing small dams in alleys to re-direct culvert-bound gushing runoff, and converting sidewalks to “semi-pervious” surfaces that let water sink between stones into the soil.
Denver’s population growth and development boom have worked against greening to improve water quality. Developers have paved over more surfaces, leaving Denver as one of the nation’s most paved-over cities — especially in newly developed areas — sluicing away runoff water at high velocity without removing contaminants.
Denver officials directed contractors at the city’s new Globeville Landing outfall drainage pipe, in a park built over a former toxic dump site, to install an ultraviolet light. This light, city officials say, zaps away more than 90% of E.coli before runoff water reaches the river.
Wild animals such as raccoons in storm sewers add to the fecal pollution contaminating runoff, Kuhn said, and “dog waste that people don’t pick up is a huge problem and a significant source of E.coli.”
State water-quality officials will soon evaluate whether two water-improvement programs in the Gunnison River basin have successfully reduced a chemical that is toxic to endangered fish.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division is analyzing five years of data on selenium levels in the Gunnison, where heightened selenium and salinity have harmed Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.
If selenium levels stay at or below the state standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in any of the segments of river that are analyzed by division staff, those segments will be reclassified from a water body that threatens aquatic life to one that meets state water-quality standards, said Skip Feeney, assessment workgroup leader for the Water Quality Control Division.
After analyzing selenium data, the division will submit a proposal after the first of the year to the CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission recommending a status change if necessary, Feeney said.
“Our goal is to provide an accurate, defensible proposal to the commission and let the commission make an informed decision,” Feeney said. In an October interview, he said he didn’t yet know “what the water-quality status is looking like.” He added: “That’s just part of the process — we’re just getting started.”
Reclassifying the river has been a goal since the establishment nearly a dozen years ago of the Selenium Management Program, a collaboration among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.
Observers have found elevated selenium levels throughout the basin, but a key river segment of focus is the main stretch of the lower Gunnison that winds for 58 miles from Delta to the confluence with the Colorado River in Grand Junction. This section, which begins at the confluence with the Uncompahgre River, was designated in 1994 as essential to pikeminnow and razorback survival by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Historically, this segment, which runs through the basin’s most populated and developed corridor, has contained selenium levels toxic to the two species of fish, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a member of the Selenium Management Program.
During the last regulation cycle, which used data gathered from multiple different entities from 2010 to 2015, the calculated level for selenium in the mainstem of the Gunnison was 6.7 micrograms per liter, a level that is 2.1 micrograms above the state standard, according to MaryAnn Nason, the communications and special-projects unit manager at CDPHE.
Yet, the past five years of U.S. Geological Survey data show that selenium levels have stayed below 4.6 micrograms. Each yearly average was below 4.6, with the average for all five years sitting at 3.2, according to an analysis by Aspen Journalism.
Kanzer cautioned that the calculation using only USGS data was “not directly applicable to the CDPHE listing methodology” — because it doesn’t take into account all available data — but he said “it does tell a good story.”
To calculate the final selenium load for each segment in the Gunnison River, CDPHE is analyzing data from the past five years from the USGS; Colorado River Watch, an environmental advocacy organization; the state; and United Companies, a Grand Junction-based construction company that is required by the state to monitor selenium levels near the gravel pits that the company operates.
Selenium’s origins and pathway to the rivers
Selenium is a natural element found in Mancos shale, a soil common throughout the Uncompahgre and Grand valleys in the Gunnison River basin. When irrigators transport water to and through their farms in open canals, selenium dissolves in the water and either percolates into groundwater or gets carried into drainage ditches that discharge into the Gunnison.
“Where we have good flows of water, (selenium) concentrations are not an issue because of dilution,” Kanzer said. “But smaller tributaries, smaller water areas or backwater areas where you don’t have good circulation, you get selenium that can accumulate in the ecosystem, really in the sediment and in the food web.”
Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker exist only in the Colorado River basin, said Travis Schmidt, a research ecologist for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center. The species are able to swim between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers with the aid of a fish passage at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the lower Gunnison, accumulating selenium and transferring the element to their offspring.
Selenium gathers in fish tissues when females ingest algae or smaller fish. It then is transferred to offspring during the egg-laying process, Schmidt said.
“Selenium replaces sulfur in protein bonds, so anything that lays an egg can transfer a lot of selenium to its progeny,” he said.
Once transferred to fish eggs, the element causes neurological, reproductive and other physiological deformities in a significant proportion of both species of fish, Schmidt said. A study that analyzed fish-tissue samples collected by federal and state agencies from 1962 to 2011 found that 63% of Colorado pikeminnows and 35% of razorback suckers exceeded healthy selenium tissue concentrations in the upper Colorado River basin.
’A happy, fringe benefit of salinity control’
Selenium was first addressed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 in a document written for the Bureau of Reclamation. The document analyzed the effects of the Aspinall Unit — a series of three dams on the upper Gunnison River — on Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker recovery. In the document, the service concluded that in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Reclamation had to increase spring flows downstream of the Aspinall Unit and initiate a management program to reduce selenium in the Gunnison. As a result, the Selenium Management Program was founded in 2009.
“It’s a two-prong type of plan,” Kanzer said of the program’s goals.
The first objective is to meet the state standard for dissolved selenium throughout the Gunnison River basin, particularly for the 58-mile main segment, Kanzer said. The second goal is to help transition the pikeminnow and razorback sucker from endangered populations to self-sustaining populations, Kanzer said.
Program members help irrigators obtain funding from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture, said Lesley McWhirter, the environmental and planning group chief for the bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office. Individual farmers can apply for funding for on-farm irrigation projects through the Department of Agriculture, and ditch companies can apply for funding projects that deliver water to farms through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Salinity Control Program.
The goal of the salinity program, which was started in 1974, is to reduce salt loading into the Colorado River basin. The program awards grants to ditch companies every two to three years. In the last grant cycle, in 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation awarded 11 ditch companies a combined $37 million to line irrigation systems. Of the 11 companies, eight are located in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties, where the Gunnison River runs, according to McWhirter.
Mancos shale is rich in salt and selenium. So, when farmers receive funding to reduce salt loads, selenium often decreases as well. This is exemplified by a USGS analysis that found selenium loads had decreased by 43% from 1986 to 2017 and by 6,600 pounds annually from 1995 to 2017.
“The selenium control is a happy, fringe benefit of salinity control,” said Delta County farmer Paul Kehmeier.
CDPHE plans to submit proposal in January
CDPHE plans to submit its proposal to the Water Quality Control Commission in early January, Nason said.
If the main segment of the Gunnison River is found to have selenium levels below the state standard, it would mean the Selenium Management Program is closer to obtaining the dual goals of fish protection and selenium reduction, Kanzer said.
Even if the main segment of the Gunnison is reclassified, the Selenium Management Program will continue efforts to reduce selenium in the Gunnison basin, Kanzer said. These efforts include data gathering and analysis and facilitating meetings among government agencies, nonprofits and stakeholders.
The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker depend on the entire Gunnison basin, so other segments containing toxic selenium levels require reduction efforts. If any new research shows that fish are harmed by selenium at levels lower than 4.6 micrograms per liter, the state could lower the selenium standard, reclassifying segments of the Gunnison as a danger to aquatic life, Kanzer said.
“The jury’s still out — we’re still trying to understand what levels are acceptable and not acceptable,” he said. “There’s always room for refinement of that standard, and that dialogue is ongoing.”
After the division submits its proposal to the commission, the proposal will be released to stakeholders and anyone who has applied to receive hearing notices or track Colorado’s regulations. The public can submit their own proposals or comments by emailing the commission. In May, the commission will review all proposals and comments to make a decision on the river segment’s 2020 status, Feeney said.
This story ran in the Dec. 3 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s the releaseThe Colorado School of Mines (Emilie Rusch):
Published today in Environmental Science and Technology, the research was led by Mines’ Chris Higgins and Juliane Brown
If state and federal regulators focus only on the safety of drinking water, the public could still be exposed to concerning levels of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) via the vegetables on their dinner plate if those vegetables are grown with PFAS-impacted water, according to a new study from researchers at Colorado School of Mines and engineering firm Geosyntec.
Published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study is the first of its kind to examine PFAS in water that is used to grow crops. Researchers compiled available data on how much individual PFASs are taken into vegetable crops irrigated with contaminated water – in this case lettuce – to estimate the daily dietary exposure intake through vegetables of these so-called “forever chemicals” for both adults and children.
“While there has been an emphasis on identifying and cleaning up drinking water impacted by PFASs, much less attention has been given to assessing risks from consuming produce irrigated with PFAS-contaminated water,” said Juliane Brown, an environmental engineering PhD candidate at Mines who led the research. “This study brings much needed attention to this issue and highlights the potential risks associated with this critical exposure pathway.”
PFASs are a large and diverse group of synthetic chemicals used in many commercial and household products, including Class B fire-fighting foams, nonstick-coated cooking pan production, food contact materials, waterproof textiles and many others. An emerging body of evidence shows PFAS exposure can cause cancer and developmental, endocrine, renal and metabolic problems.
Globally, PFAS contamination of irrigation water and soils in agricultural areas has arisen from a variety of sources, including the use of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) on military bases and airfields, the application of treated sewage sludge as agricultural fertilizer and releases from nearby industrial facilities.
But currently, many state and federal agencies are primarily focused on drinking water exposure, missing a potentially importance exposure pathway via irrigation water, said Christopher Higgins, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mines and senior author of the study.
“Even when drinking water has been treated and is considered safe, there is a potential for exposure from vegetables irrigated with contaminated water or grown in contaminated soil,” Higgins said. “This study shows that regulations that solely target perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water are inadequate to protect human health risks from PFASs.”
By using statistical modeling techniques akin to the election model prediction forecasts, the Mines-led team was able to consider a range of variability and uncertainty to identify the “most likely” intake and hazard associated with consuming PFAS-contaminated vegetables, using lettuce as a proxy for produce. The team also predicted risk-based threshold concentrations in produce and irrigation water to provide screening levels for assessment. These represent the range of concentrations for individual PFASs in irrigation water predicted to be below a level of concern for human health.
Using the lowest available human health toxicity reference values and a conservative 5th percentile approach, estimated risk-based threshold concentrations in irrigation water were 38 nanograms per liter (ng/L) for PFOA and 140 ng/L for PFOS, two PFASs commonly targeted by regulators.
In the case of PFOA, this suggests that even if irrigation water meets the current 70 ng/L PFOA and PFOS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifetime health advisory for drinking water, this may not be fully protective of PFOA exposure due to vegetables grown in that water, at least compared to toxicity reference values used by the State of California, which has the lowest toxicity reference value for PFOA in the U.S., Higgins said. Importantly, PFAS contamination also typically includes more than just PFOA or PFOS.
“Another major implication of this study is we really need to come up with a plan to address PFAS mixtures, as these chemicals are nearly always present as a mixture,” Higgins said
The team used real-world data from PFAS-contaminated groundwater to conduct a hazard analysis of a theoretical farm comparing different risk estimates based on established state, federal, and international toxicity reference doses. This analysis showed estimated exposures to most PFASs exceeding available or derived human health toxicity reference values – indicating water-to-crop transfer is an important exposure pathway for agricultural communities with PFAS-impacted irrigation water.
The full study, “Assessing human health risks from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)-impacted vegetable consumption: a tiered modeling approach,” is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c03411. In addition to Brown and Higgins, co-authors were Geosyntec principal scientist Jason Conder and project scientist Jennifer Arblaster.
This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under Assistance Agreement No G18A112656081.)
Here’s the abstract:
Irrigation water or soil contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) raises concerns among regulators tasked with protecting human health from potential PFAS-contaminated food crops, with several studies identifying crop uptake as an important exposure pathway. We estimated daily dietary exposure intake of individual PFASs in vegetables for children and adults using Monte Carlo simulation in a tiered stochastic modeling approach: exposures were the highest for young children (1−2 years > adults > 3−5 years > 6−11 years > 12−19years). Using the lowest available human health toxicity reference values (RfDs) and no additional exposure, estimated fifth percentile risk-based threshold concentrations in irrigation water were 38 ng/L (median 180 ng/L) for perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and 140 ng/L (median 850 ng/L) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Thus, consumption of vegetables irrigated with PFAS impacted water that meets the current 70 ng/L of PFOA and PFOS U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory for drinking water may or may not be protective of vegetable exposures to these contaminants. Hazard analyses using real-world PFAS- contaminated groundwater data for a hypothetical farm showed estimated exposures to most PFASs exceeding available or derived RfDs, indicating water-to-crop transfer is an important exposure pathway for communities with PFAS-impacted irrigation water.
The city would pay a fine of $2 million and commit to an additional $43 million in stormwater projects over 15 years, Mayor John Suthers announced earlier this week.
Suthers said “an agreement in principle” exists for a settlement between the city — the defendant in the case — and the plaintiffs including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pueblo County and the lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.
“We’re now entering a 30-day comment period,” he said. “At the end of it, the judge will evaluate whether he wants to approve the settlement. I suspect he will.”
The mayor said that in the next few weeks, city officials will explain settlement details to the public, and that he already has City Council approval to pay the penalty.
“The federal government would get $1 million of the fine, and the state would get the other half,” he said. “The state’s share actually goes into a current project in the Arkansas River. That’s a lot better than a $12 million fine that was initially discussed.”
As a result of the penalty, however, Suthers said the city will have to raise its stormwater fee to homeowners and businesses over the next 15 years to pay the penalty…
Suthers said the city’s stormwater issues were a result of inaction by previous city councils, but upon his election as mayor in 2015 he pledged to address the issue and heal the rift between Pueblo County leaders, who had threatened to sue the city.
In fact, in the spring of 2016, Pueblo County agreed on a long-range plan in which the city would spend $460 million over 20 years on 71 stormwater projects, maintenance and enforcement.
To help generate the needed revenue, Suthers in 2017 pushed for the re-establishment of a stormwater fee ultimately passed by voters that November…
The city hoped its progress on stormwater issues would prevent a lawsuit, but in November 2016 the EPA initially filed suit and the other plaintiffs joined in. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch presided over the weeklong bench trial in Denver in September 2018, and issued his ruling two months later.
The new regulations would require PAWSD to treat wastewater so that it is cleaner than the water initially taken in through their river diversions, Ramsey explained. This would mean the treated wastewater that gets discharged downstream would be cleaner than the water PAWSD takes in upstream.
Ramsey went on to explain how treating the wastewater to that extent may not be worth it, given the next water district to pull from that water source is over 100 miles away.
According to Ramsey, this would be upward of a $12 million capital investment project.
When asked in a phone interview about where the funding needed for a project like this would come from, he said, “We have no idea, that’s the problem.”
The board also discussed the possibility of raising the monthly sewer service base charge from $32 to $47 in 2025…
In the meeting, Ramsey ex- plained that PAWSD could fight the state on the imposed regulations.
PAWSD has already hired an at- torney to assist with the matter. According to Ramsey, PAWSD chose to hire attorneys with Law of The Rockies, who are currently representing Mt. Crested Butte in its dispute…
According to Walsh, the revised intergovernmental agreement with the Pagosa Springs Sanitation Gen- eral Improvement District (PSS- GID) “clearly stated that expansion and/or modification was a joint expense.”
PAWSD and the PSSGID entered into the agreement for PAWSD to treat the PSSGID’s wastewater.
Drought surcharge plan
The board also discussed the possibility of implementing a new drought surcharge rate plan. The new plan would include five stages of drought, progressing from a vol- untary stage to stage four.
The triggers used to determine the drought stage would include the San Juan River flow rate and the Hatcher Reservoir water level, along with the call date on the Four Mile diversion and the date when snowpacks on the mountains have melted away.
According to a presentation from Ramsey, for the voluntary through stage two categories, there would be no extra sur- charge for up to 4,000 gallons of water used in residential units per month. For stages three and four, there would be a surcharge of $7.68 per unit.
According to the presentation, for the voluntary stage and stage one, there would be no surcharge for residential units using more than 4,000 gallons of water a month. In stage two, a “2x stan- dard tier rate fee” would be ap- plied when using more than 4,000 gallons. Stage three would incur a “surcharge and a 3x standard tier rate fee” and stage four would in- cur a “surcharge and a 4x standard rate fee” for residential units using more than 4,000 gallons of water a month.
These new rates have not been applied yet, and according to Ramsey, PAWSD will be conducting a water usage study before imple- menting a new plan.
Since the 2016 revelation that groundwater in Fountain Valley, which provided drinking water for Security-Widefield and Fountain, was contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which include a number of individual chemicals such as PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS and PFHpA, government agencies, residents and community activists have been struggling to come to terms with what is arguably one of the largest ecological contaminations in Colorado’s history.
On Aug. 4, Chris Reh, associate director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), led a virtual information session for residents of Security-Widefield and Fountain regarding its ongoing PFAS exposure assessment. The assessment will randomly select participants and test blood, urine and tap water for levels of PFAS chemicals. According to Reh, the assessment will identify how people might be exposed to chemicals, calculate the extent of exposure and determine if there is a threat to health.
ATSDR’s exposure assessment is the first part of a process that will continue in 2021 with the Pease Study, a national multi-site study conducted locally by the Colorado School of Public Health that will look at the human health effects of PFAS exposure through drinking contaminated water. While the sites chosen for this study are near Air Force operations, PFAS exposure extends far beyond Air Force bases. Much of the focus in El Paso County is on Fountain Valley, but the Air Force Academy on the city’s Northside also released PFAS chemicals, and residents of Woodmen Valley report health concerns as well, though they are not included in the ATSDR exposure assessment.
El Paso County is one of eight sites nationwide identified by ATSDR for exposure assessments related to PFAS chemicals. The sites, located in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Washington and West Virginia, are co-located with Air Force bases that used aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a type of chemical used to extinguish fuel fires and that contains PFAS chemicals…
Since 2016, community activists have been working to raise awareness of this environmental threat, and Colorado legislators have recently passed laws to address PFAS contamination. While much of the blame, and legal consequences, for this massive and widespread contamination have been aimed at companies that produce PFAS chemicals, such as DuPont and 3M, the military has known of the potential dangers of these chemicals since at least 1989.
The Air Force Occupational and Environmental Health Laboratory published a study titled “Biological Analysis of Three Ponds at Peterson AFB [Air Force Base], Colorado Springs CO” in November 1989 that raised concerns about contamination coming from the installation. “A series of three man-made ponds on the golf course at Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs CO were analyzed to determine their current ecological status and future potential for recreational fishing,” notes the report, which goes on to identify that “Pond 3 cannot be recommended for stocking with fish in its current condition. Low species diversity suggests that this pond is being stressed by an unknown pollutant.” The report identifies a nearby storm drain as a “chronic source of pollutants for this pond.” While the Air Force analyzed a number of factors, such as pH and the levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton, it was quick to identify AFFF as a possible problem, noting that it “was accidentally spilled into pond 3 shortly before the first fish kill. A subsequent restocking resulted in a second fish kill.”
Stephen Brady of the Peterson-Schriever Garrison Public Affairs office commented, “When there is a potential our missions are having, or may have had, an adverse impact on communities, we take appropriate measures to protect it. When PFOS was discovered in the aquifer south of base in 2016, we immediately stopped using the legacy foam during fire response and training. We replaced the legacy foam in our fire response vehicles in November 2016 and in the hangar fire suppression systems in 2018 with a more environmentally responsible foam. Our first responders will only use the new environmentally responsible firefighting foam for emergency life-saving response, and do not discharge it during training. The Air Force takes environmental stewardship seriously, and continuously strives to meet or exceed environmental standards.”
By the early 2000s DuPont and 3M were facing lawsuits from residents near their plants and increased scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the EPA formally issued a health advisory regarding PFAS chemicals and set advisory levels of contamination at 70 parts per trillion (ppt)…
While Rosenbaum was organizing FVCWC, the Colorado School of Public Health began to study exposure and health effects from PFAS chemicals. The study was named “PFAS Aware.” In 2018 the PFAS Aware team began sampling water in Fountain Valley. Initial results published in December 2018 showed that “total PFASs in untreated well water ranged from 18 – 2300 ppt” and that “PFASs detected are typical of fire-fighting foam-impacted groundwater.”
On Sept. 18, 2019, the Air Force Academy sent a notice to Woodmen Valley residents, signed by Col. Brian Hartless, the installation commander, warning them that “firefighting foam containing PFOS and PFOA was used for firefighter training at the Academy from the 1970s until 1990, when we began to consolidate all of our training at Peterson Air Force Base. After that time, the equipment used to dispense the foam was periodically tested until approximately 2005.” Hartless did note that “this firefighting foam has never been used to extinguish a petroleum-based aircraft fire at the Academy” and that “the foam now in use at the Academy is a more environmentally friendly formula that we began using in approximately 2017.” Hartless went on to inform residents that the Air Force would begin sampling wells within the Woodmen Valley Fire Protection District.
According to Hartless, Air Force Civil Engineer Center representatives “identified 37 private wells used for drinking water at homes closest in proximity to the southern base boundary for sampling. To date, 35 of the 37 wells have been sampled.”
Bill Beaudin, a Woodmen Valley resident since 1978, questions the Air Force’s testing process. “The north border of our property is the south border of the Academy,” he says. “We live on six acres. For many years until 1995 we all used well water. We were offered to go on city water at that time and most of us took that option. About 38 families chose not to go on city water for whatever reason.”
Longtime residents like Beaudin were concerned about the fact that the Air Force only tested the wells still in use. “The rest of us all drank that water and so did our children for all of those years in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s until we went on city water,” says Beaudin, “and yet the Air Force Academy chose to just do this select group.”
On March 24, the Air Force announced in a news release, “recent well water monitoring tests on the southeast perimeter of the U.S. Air Force Academy show Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) below the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lifetime Health Advisory level of 70 ppt.”
While the Air Force reported PFOS and PFOA levels below the EPA advisory limits, Rosenbaum says that doesn’t tell the whole story. ”There’s 4,700 different types [of PFAS],” she says, “PFHxS is toxic firefighting foam, which may or may not have PFOA, which is Teflon, or PFAS, which is Scotchgard water-repellent. So when the Air Force Academy said ‘we’re below levels of PFOA and PFAS,’ all of us activists who have been doing this for four years were like, ‘duh.’ You don’t have a Teflon pan company. You don’t have a Scotchgard water-proofing company. You have toxic firefighting foam, so here, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility [PEER] did a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act request] to try to get the PFHxS levels, and they are really high.”
On March 12, 12 days before the Air Force’s statement, PEER reported that “The Air Force Academy test data of neighboring drinking water wells found levels of two individual PFAS chemicals, PFHxS and PFHpA, at more than 200 ppt in two locations” and “combined PFAS levels at a single well of 503.9 ppt and 537.8 ppt across two separate tests.”
The consternation over the levels of PFAS chemicals in the water stems from concerns over the health effects of exposure to these chemicals. Heightened levels of PFAS chemicals have been linked to health problems such as increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, according to Rachel Rogers, an environmental health scientist with ATSDR.
“A neighbor that was four houses away, her husband died of testicular cancer,” says Beaudin. “A neighbor who has since passed away died from both kidney and bladder cancer. They were longtime neighbors of ours.”
Rosenbaum notes, “The main health issues here are kidney cancers, prostate cancer and a lot of autoimmune diseases.” Autoimmune disease are often difficult to diagnose because symptoms can come from other common conditions…
Lawmakers in Colorado addressed problems with PFAS contamination during the 2019 legislative session. Tony Exum, D-House District 18; Lois Landgraf, R-House District 21; Pete Lee, D-Senate District 11; and Dennis Hisey, R-Senate District 2, sponsored House Bill 1279, which bans the use of AFFFs that use PFAS chemicals for testing or training purposes. In 2020 the same group of legislators sponsored House Bill 1119, which further regulates the use of PFAS chemicals.
On July 10, The city of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities, along with the cities of Aurora, Greeley, Fountain and a number of water districts filed a motion to vacate an administrative action hearing by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) in regards to a proposed new policy to address PFAS contamination, referred to as policy 20-1. The motion states, “The Joint Parties recognize the importance of assuring that drinking water supplies are not contaminated by PFAS, and that water supplies contaminated by PFAS are cleaned up. Vacating the administrative action hearing will not preclude the cleanup of PFAS; it will require that regulatory measures imposed by the Water Quality Control Division are properly authorized through a rulemaking hearing.”
Rosenbaum was confused by the motion. “At first the injunction was pretty difficult to understand,” she says. “Here we are Saturday morning and it came across that they wanted all the PFAS discussions taken out of the meeting. This is our fifth contamination to our water district here. We have to do something completely different and drastic and start writing new policy. The state health department wasn’t making a new law, they were adding language to the policy they already had in place.
According to Jennifer Kemp, a public affairs specialist with Colorado Springs Utilities, “The reason for our joining several other Front Range entities on the motion to vacate is because we did not agree with the WQCC’s approach to regulating PFAS. Under Colorado’s State Administrative Procedure Act, a policy is a general statement of interpretation that is not meant to be a binding rule. Therefore, we joined other stakeholders in asserting that the regulation of PFAS is so important that it should have been accomplished with a thorough rulemaking process to establish a statewide PFAS standard.”
On July 14 the WQCC adopted policy 20-1. “What this policy does,” explains Rosenbaum, “is it forces wastewater to test for PFAS. Your drinking water is fine, it’s not contaminated yet, but do you have an industry that’s dumping everything into the wastewater? We have the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, so they’re not dumping in rivers anymore but they’re dumping into wastewater.
Now we’re making that accountable in our state. Now we’re explicitly stating in writing CDPHE [Colorado Department of Health and Environment] will receive extra funding to help that water district do an investigation of the industries that are connected to the wastewater system to see if they have PFAS. If they do, now they have to filter it at their site. If you own a restaurant, you have a grease trap. You can’t just dump in the wastewater. If you have a dental office, it’s explicitly written that they have to filter mercury. We’re not doing anything different, we’re just directly applying it where they’ve gotten away with no rules because they’ve been allowed to self-regulate.”
While ATSDR completes their current study, Rosenbaum is planning her next steps. “We need to set maximum contaminant levels in this state,” she says. “What we can do is stop the industry from adding more [PFAS contamination] in. New Hampshire set it at 18 ppt, where the state health department wanted to set it at 700 ppt for PFHxS, which is stupid. The EPA isn’t monitoring PFHxS, they’re just doing PFOA and PFAS, so we brought in evidence from other states saying PFHxs is actually the more harmful one because it’s more prevalent.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (MaryAnn Nason):
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reminds people recreating in Colorado waters to be aware of the potential for toxic algae and take precautions to avoid it. State testing so far this summer has found toxic algae in Prospect Lake in Colorado Springs, Barr Lake, Cherry Creek Reservoir, and Steamboat Lake. It likely is present in other lakes and slow-moving waters as well.
Toxic algae are made up of what many people call blue-green algae or harmful algae blooms. This algae is common and natural to our waters in Colorado, but sometimes it grows and produces toxins that can harm people and be fatal to animals like dogs.
“If you suspect toxic algae is present, do not let your kids, pets, or livestock touch or drink the water — when in doubt, stay out,” said Kristy Richardson, state toxicologist. “If any person or animal has had contact with the water, make sure they shower immediately and watch for symptoms.”
Symptoms for people include skin rash, gastrointestinal upset, fever, headache, sore throat, muscle, and joint pain. Symptoms for pets include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, abdominal swelling, stumbling, seizures, disorientation, or difficulty breathing. There have been a number of possible cases of toxic algae-associated illness reported to the state this summer.
Only lab tests or test strips can determine if an algae bloom is toxic, but algae that may contain toxins has certain characteristics. It may resemble thick pea soup, spilled paint on the water’s surface, and/or create a thick mat of foam along the shoreline. Toxic algae are typically not stringy or mustard yellow in color (the latter is probably pollen). If you see possible signs of toxic algae:
Keep kids and animals out of the water.
Don’t swim or wade.
Don’t drink the water and know it’s never safe to drink water from lakes or rivers.
When boating, avoid the areas with the algae.
Clean fish well with potable water, and discard the guts.
Contact poison control at 1-800-222-1222, or a health care provider, if people or animals have symptoms.
Some lake managers test for toxic algae at certain locations and report it to the state. The state takes this information and updates an online dashboard at the end of the season to show historical trends and help raise awareness for the future season. The state encourages other managers of water bodies to also report to the state if they inspect or test for toxic algae.
“With resources granted by the legislature in 2018, we were able to start a toxic algae program to better understand the problem in Colorado,” said Nicole Rowan, Clean Water Program Manager for the department. “These resources cover testing for just a small portion of Colorado’s lakes and ponds, so we depend on other waterbody managers to be aware and vigilant about this problem.”
Toxic algae is most common in the hottest months of summer. Excess nutrients, high temperatures, and standing or slow-moving water provide an optimal environment for toxic algae, so it’s not commonly found in rivers or high mountain lakes.
“There isn’t an easy fix for this,” Melynda May, Water Quality Specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “There are some physical and chemical controls but they are expensive and they don’t guarantee the removal of the toxic algae. Everyone can be algae aware and play a role to help prevent toxic algae blooms from forming in the first place.”
Simple acts such as not using excess fertilizer, picking up pet waste, and not using de-icers that contain urea can help reduce the amount of nutrients entering our waterways and ultimately reduce the risk of algae blooms.
More information, including guidance for managers or owners of waterbodies or owners of pets can be found at colorado.gov/cdphe/harmful-algae-blooms.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has registered more than 100 waterbody segments on its impaired waters list due to alarmingly high E. coli levels
…public health officials are taking this fecal bacterium quite seriously, as summer temperatures make Colorado’s waterways ideal breeding grounds for Escherichia coli. Policymakers and scientists across the state are working to decipher which types of microbes are lurking in the water, and whether they actually pose a significant threat to human health…
100 waterways considered “impaired” by E. coli
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has registered more than 100 waterbody segments on its impaired waters list due to alarmingly high E. coli levels. While only certain strains of E. coli cause illness in humans, officials do not yet have the capacity to pinpoint in any real-time fashion where and when these strains congregate.
Among the newest segments on the list is the stretch of Boulder Creek between the mouth of Boulder Canyon and 13th Street…
Prior to the latest update in January, the CDPHE had considered only the portion from below 13th Street to its confluence with South Boulder Creek to be impaired…
The city of Boulder isn’t sure where the contamination is coming from, but a team led by Candice Owen, the stormwater quality supervisor, is trying to figure it out. She and her team will be taking more frequent dry weather discharge samples toward the end of the recreation season, when E. coli concentrations are typically highest, she said. The city also recently began posting precautionary signs along the creek, in English and Spanish, indicating the periodic presence of bacteria…
The CDPHE’s Monitoring and Evaluation list, or M&E list, includes waterways in which two, three, or four water samples have exceeded the EPA’s recreational-waters standard of 126 colony-forming units (cfu) per 100 milliliters. For more serious violations, in which there is “overwhelming evidence” of contamination, waterways end up on the state’s list of impaired waters, officially known as 303(d). The Water Quality Control Division defines overwhelming evidence as exceeding water quality standards by more than 50%.
While EPA standards consider recreational waters to be impaired if E. coli levels exceed 126 cfu per 100 mL – as opposed to 235 cfu per 100 mL necessary for swim beach closures – the CDPHE warns that risk of becoming ill still exists in these waters.
CDPHE recommends that people take precautions if they choose to swim in impaired waterways, mainly by avoiding swallowing water and washing their hands upon exiting. To minimize further contamination of the waterways, the department advises showering before entering, taking children on frequent bathroom breaks and staying out of the water when ill with gastrointestinal symptoms…
Boulder Creek is far from alone in its E. coli problems – with quite a formidable competitor at Confluence Park in Denver, where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek come together.
When storm drains undergo flushing or sediment in streams is stirred up, so, too, are the E. coli lurking in these spaces, explained Jon Novick, environmental administrator at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. Like Owen, Novick said pinpointing the bacteria’s exact sources is difficult, but he noted that raccoons congregate near the park and homeless individuals also camp along the river…
…Denver has launched a number of initiatives aimed at tackling the problem – particularly within the stormwater outfalls where “urban drool,” like irrigation return flows and other untreated water tends to accumulate, Novick said. For example, he said, the city has installed UV filtration systems that are quite effective in eliminating E. coli from sewage during dry weather…
Confluence Park samples collected on July 14 indicated that E. coli levels were above recreational standards at both the Cherry Creek and South Platte River testing sites, which Novick attributed to that day’s storm. The Cherry Creek spot is typically the greater offender of the two, due to its shallow water level, sandy bottom and shaded environment, he said…
Nonetheless, Novick acknowledged that officials don’t really know whether exposure to E. coli in impaired waters actually leads to illness. Public health agencies do not typically survey bathers to find out if swimming in the creek has made them sick, he said.
“At least with the smog, you can see it. With the flaring, we can see it,” said [Ean Thomas] Tafoya. “I would say average people aren’t really aware as much about water pollution because it’s something that’s invisible.”
What concerns Tafoya is recent evidence Suncor is emitting high levels of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, into Sand Creek…
Since last summer, Suncor has complied with a state directive to test treated groundwater it pumps into Sand Creek for the chemicals. A letter state regulators sent to the company show the effluent often had PFAS concentrations far exceeding what the EPA recommends for safe drinking water.
According to one test from January, the levels of PFOS and PFOA, two of the best understood PFAS, combined to 199 parts per trillion. That’s almost three times the federal health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. It’s seven times more than stricter levels recently adopted in New Hampshire…
The refinery’s problems with water pollution date back to the 1990s. Due to hydrocarbon spills and benzene pollution, the company began to pump up groundwater, treat it and release it into Sand Creek…
While the presence of PFAS in that water has not been reported until now, it was not a huge surprise to state regulators at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The refinery has long practiced firefighting at an onsite location. In a statement, spokesperson Erin Rees said the company believes the chemicals in groundwater comes from the historic use of Class B firefighting foam. She added the company has since replaced the foam with a new product in line with EPA recommendations…
The news also follows a statewide survey commissioned by the legislature, which identified Suncor as a forever-chemical hotspot. The state conducted tests of 24 wells at the refinery between October 2018 and May 2019. The results found concentrations almost 150 times above the EPA health advisory.
That same survey included tests of surface water across the state. The only place where levels exceeded the threshold of 70 parts per trillion was the mouth of Sand Creek, just below Suncor…
After finding such high concentrations, Dani said the state worked with local health officials to reach nearby homes with shallow groundwater wells. The campaign, conducted in English and Spanish, offered residents free PFAS tests. According to Dani, the results show “we don’t have anyone drinking water above the health advisory.”
Kipp Scott, the manager of the South Adams County Water & Sanitation District, said the same can be said for municipal tap water. His system supplies water to more than 60,000 people in Commerce City and other parts of southern Adams County.
The district has worked to control PFAS in its water supply since 2018 when it found high concentrations in a dozen wells near I-270 and Quebec. The district disconnected three of the wells and purchased supplies from Denver Water to dilute what it sent to customers…
Following the incident, Scott said his district improved its water treatment practices and launched programs to conduct regular tests of the chemicals. Those results show water now sent to customers contains about 25 parts per trillion for PFOS/PFOA, below the health advisory.
Scott added he’s “reasonably sure” forever chemicals from Suncor aren’t affecting the water supply of its neighbors. That’s because most of the water supplied to the district comes from wells sunk into a different branch of the alluvial aquifer running beneath the district. Based on groundwater models, he said he has no reason to believe the chemicals at Suncor have reached the water supply.
Still, the water in Sand Creek does join the South Platte, which flows through Colorado into Nebraska. Water districts downstream from Commerce City use the river to grow crops and supply drinking water.
A Coming Crack Down
Even if forever chemicals from Suncor aren’t affecting drinking water, it will likely affect the company.
Last week, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission adopted the state’s first-ever limits on forever chemicals. The new policy was pushed ahead in the absence of federal regulation, which has lagged under complex EPA rulemaking and inaction from Congress. It allows the state to set limits for the chemicals in wastewater permits in line with the federal health advisory. If a company or wastewater district exceeds the limit, it could require water treatment or issue fines of up to $54,000 per day.
Meg Parish, permit section manager for the Water Quality Control Division, said Suncor’s permit is up for renewal next year and would be subject to the new policy…
Rees, the spokesperson for Suncor, said the company is already exploring PFOS/PFOA treatment options as a part of its general efforts to improve water coming from the Commerce City facility…
But the commitment from Suncor doesn’t put Olga Mijares at ease. The school administrator lives near the refinery and raised her three children in Commerce City. Like most people in the largely Latino community, she doesn’t drink the tap water but showers and cooks with it.
Her oldest son, who is 29 years old, has already battled thyroid and brain cancer. She said a doctor told her she would never know what was behind the conditions and to put it out of her mind, if possible. She said that gets a lot harder when she learns about any new pollution near her home.
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From Water Education Colorado (Laura Paskus and Caitlin Coleman):
When Water Justice is Absent, Communities Speak Up
Two years ago, a company that analyzes property data crunched the numbers on more than 8,600 zip codes in the United States and found that America’s most polluted neighborhood was in northeast Denver. The study, from ATTOM Data Solutions, shows that Denver’s 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and River North, topped its “environmental hazard index.” As of 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory reported that 22 facilities were still releasing toxic chemicals in 80216, chemicals such as nickel, lead, methanol, creosote and more.
“The neighborhood is parked between gas refineries, the former airport, and then, also, what was at one time an Army base making mustard gas,” says University of Denver law professor Tom Romero, II, who has spent his career dissecting the factors behind environmental injustices in Colorado. There are two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in 80216, plus the knot of Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 severs the neighborhood from the rest of Denver and increases pollution from highway traffic. The area is also home to a predominantly low-income, Hispanic and Latinx community, says Candi CdeBaca, Denver City Councilwoman for northeast Denver’s District 9.
Last year, CdeBaca became the first person from the neighborhoods to represent on the Denver City Council, ever. She points to an opposition campaign to the Central 70 Project as the beginning of the neighborhood rallying to achieve representation against environmental inequities.
The Central 70 Project broke ground in 2018 to widen the highway through Denver. It will demolish the viaduct that carries I-70 over Elyria-Swansea, replacing it with a below-grade highway. Residents had a list of worries: losing their homes to eminent domain, living even closer to the highway, and unearthing a Superfund site, which they feared would re-expose harmful heavy metals and increase health risks, CdeBaca says.
Their opposition campaign didn’t stop the highway work, but the community came together and won in one sense—the Colorado Department of Transportation will pay for a long-term health study, collecting data to determine whether toxins in the air, soil and water are making residents sick. They also gained a louder voice. “Those losses were the first start of me galvanizing some community power around environmental racism,” says CdeBaca. “Now we have this amplification of groups who never had representation in our government from the neighborhoods that were polluted.” She points to the importance of local voice and representation in all issues, particularly for communities that want to bring about environmental justice. “There is nothing that I support more than activating people power,” CdeBaca says.
With water affordability, access and quality challenges—all of which can translate into health impacts—the role of water in Colorado isn’t always one of fostering healthy communities, yet it could and should be. What contributes to these less-than-whole communities? And what does it take to recognize the issues and how they evolved, address power imbalances, engage the community, and restore equity where it’s been missing?
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental injustices in Colorado, or anywhere, can span cities and suburbs, sovereign tribal lands, and rural communities. They have their roots in narratives of immigration, development and industry, and political power dynamics, further influenced by evolving legal and regulatory frameworks.
In 1990, EPA Administrator William Reilly created an Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess evidence that “racial minority and low-income communities bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population.” The agency, which went on to establish an Environmental Equity office in 1992, later changing its name to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994, defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” It has since expanded to offer a range of programs that provide services from grant funding to technical assistance and training. It also runs a National Environmental Justice Hotline.
Another early definition of environmental justice came from University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant, who said it refers to places “where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential.”
Scholars add additional layers to the term—it’s not just about identifying who is or isn’t harmed but includes some form of restitution, says Kelsea MacIlroy, an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in the sociology department at Colorado State University.
“There are a lot of different ways to talk about justice that aren’t just about who and how but also about a long-term social justice component,” MacIlroy says. “Does the community actually have an authentic seat at the table in addressing the ills?”
80216 may feel it all. “Denver was segregated, and that segregation manifested itself in a variety of ways in terms of water,” Romero says. “It meant that Denver’s communities of color, particularly African Americans and Mexican Americans, were living in close proximity to the areas with heavy industry, where the affordable housing is.” That’s a pattern and practice, he says, that was established in the 20th century and continues today. Many environmental justice cases have similar roots, as repeated practices that ultimately create winners and losers.
When Government Fails
Americans watched one of the most high-profile environmental justice cases unfold in Flint, Michigan, in 2015 and 2016 when corroded lead pipes poisoned the population.
To save money, in April 2014, the city switched its drinking water source and began supplying residents with Flint River water that wasn’t treated under federal anti-corrosion rules. The population was predominantly black, and more than 40 percent of residents were below the poverty threshold. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, no level of lead exposure is safe but higher lead exposure leads to more health challenges including anemia, kidney and brain damage, heart disease, decreased IQ and more. In children, the impacts are especially toxic.
Residents began noticing a rusty tint to their tap water in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until October 2015 that the governor ordered Flint’s water source switched. By then, though the new water was safe, the plumbing wasn’t—corroded pipes continued to leach lead into drinking water. Bottled water and free faucet filters to remove lead at the point of use were distributed.
More than five years after the crisis in Flint began, the city and its residents are still recovering. The city’s FAST Start program is removing and replacing lead and galvanized steel service lines across the city, but it’s a big, expensive job. FAST Start has been funded with $25 million from the State of Michigan and $100 million allocated by Congress through the Federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act of 2016. As of December 2019, less than 40 percent of the city’s pipes had been replaced, with many residents still relying on faucet filters or bottled water.
Fifteen state and local officials were charged with various crimes, including involuntary manslaughter—some took plea deals and most cases were dropped. Residents now mistrust their water and water providers. That mistrust has flooded the nation, with many more communities now coping with elevated lead levels and lead pipe replacement.
According to the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released in 2016, breakdowns in protocol, dismissal of problems, and failure to protect people occurred at nearly every level of government. Not only were customers supplied with unsafe drinking water, government officials were slow to acknowledge the problems and rectify the issue by providing safe water. According to the 2016 report, the Flint water crisis is a “story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental justice.” Had there been local control of resources and decisions, they write, the problems wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Coping with Forever Chemicals
Flint’s toxic water is not unlike the water quality issues discovered in 2016 in the Colorado towns of Fountain and Security-Widefield. That’s when water providers and residents learned that PFAS chemicals, short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, were detected at levels above EPA’s new 2016 health advisory levels. The source of the chemicals: firefighting foam used for decades to extinguish training fuel fires at the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force now uses a replacement foam at the base, and in 2019, the Colorado Legislature enacted restrictions and bans on PFAS foam, but the damage has been done. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate and remain in the environment for a long time, with half lives (the amount of time it takes the chemical to decrease to half its original value) in humans of two to eight years, depending on the chemical. They have been linked to cancers, liver and kidney damage, high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, and other ailments.
“We ended up having 16 family members that lived within that area that had cancer, and five of them died of kidney cancer,” said Mark Favors, during a public event on PFAS at Colorado School of Mines in January 2020. Favors is a former resident of Security, a U.S. Army veteran, a PFAS activist, and member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. “A lot of [my family] are military veterans. One of my cousins, while he was doing two combat tours in Iraq, the Air Force was contaminating their drinking water. That’s the crazy part. How they’ve admitted it and it’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” Favors says.
These southern El Paso County towns aren’t home to what are often considered disadvantaged populations—the poverty rate is between 8 and 9 percent, slightly less than the statewide average; about 60 percent of residents are white, and about 20 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. However, census numbers don’t represent military personnel who temporarily reside in the area. According to El Paso County’s Health Indicators report, published in 2012, four military bases in the county employ 40,500 military personnel and about 21,000 contract personnel.
When EPA tightened its health advisory levels in 2016, they were 10 times more restrictive than what the agency had previously advised, and water providers realized they had a problem. They acted quickly to provide residents with free bottled water and water filling stations while they suspended use of the aquifer, then worked to broker deals to purchase clean water from other municipalities. Some of those deals were only temporary. Since June 2018, the City of Fountain has worked to get back on its groundwater supply, treating the groundwater with granular activated carbon units provided by the Air Force. Now it is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a full, permanent groundwater treatment plant. The story in Security is similar—the Security Water and Sanitation District has been importing water, primarily from Pueblo Reservoir, to meet the needs of its residents since 2016, which involved building new pipelines and purchasing extra water from Colorado Springs Utilities—an added cost. Security avoided raising water rates for a time, paying those costs out of its cash reserves. By 2018, residents had to absorb a 15 percent rate increase, with another 9.5 percent increase in 2019.
The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a treatment facility in Security, too, which should be complete by the end of 2020. Once the plant is finished, Security will switch back to a combination of groundwater and surface water, and rates should stabilize once the costs of those pipelines are recovered, says Roy Heald, general manager at Security Water and Sanitation Districts.
Who pays to protect the health of those who rely on this water? “What responsibility did [the Air Force] have in rectifying this? What about the local sanitation districts? They have to deal with this. It’s not their fault but they’re tasked with giving clean water,” says MacIlroy at Colorado State University.
“The Air Force really has stepped up,” Heald says. But they may have to step up further—in 2019, the Security Water and Sanitation Districts and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, another affected entity, sued the Air Force to recoup the costs of purchasing and piping in clean water. Their lawsuit cites negligence for disposal of chemicals, remediation of contamination, and breaching a responsibility to prevent dangerous conditions on the defendant’s property. Heald wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but says, “As long as [cash] reserves are at an adequate level, if we received a windfall there would be no place else for it to go besides back to our customers.” Those recouped costs would likely take the form of lower or stabilized rates.
Residents are also pushing for justice through a class-action lawsuit brought by the Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Lawfirm, which has teamed up with a personal injury law firm in New York to file against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and other manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of accountability and justice for these people who unknowingly, for years, drank colorless, odorless high amounts of PFAS,” says Favors. He calls for better oversight and demands that polluters are held accountable.
As for coping with PFAS-related health challenges, there are still a lot of unknowns, but El Paso County was selected to participate in two national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to better assess the dangers of human exposure to PFAS, and to evaluate exposure pathways.
Locally, the study and lawsuits might help recoup some financial damages—but PFAS-related water contamination isn’t isolated to these Colorado communities. In July 2019, the Environmental Working Group mapped at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states. Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoping to implement a national PFAS drinking water standard, estimate the number is even higher: 1,400 communities suffer from PFAS contamination. A U.S. Senate version of a PFAS-regulating bill has yet to be introduced. But in February, EPA released a draft proposal to consider regulating PFOS and PFOA, just two of the thousands of PFAS.
Justice through Water Rights
Environmental justice isn’t exclusively an urban issue. Injustices involving pollution, public health, access, affordability and water can be wrought anyplace—including rural and suburban areas. For rural communities, the issue comes to a head when people, organizations or entities in power seek more water for their needs at the cost of others.
In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, acequia communities fought for years to protect their water rights and way of life. Acequias are an equity-based irrigation system introduced by the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of southern Colorado. “What it means is that the entire community is only benefitted when all resources are shared,” says Judy Lopez, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. There, Lopez works with landowners to preserve wildlife habitat, forests, culturally significant lands, and ag lands—including those served by acequias.
The Town of San Luis, the heart of Colorado’s acequia community, is one of the most economically disadvantaged in the state. It’s in Costilla County, where more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latinx—more than any other county in Colorado—and 25 percent of the population live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. But the people there are long-time landowners, never separated from the land their ancestors settled, four to seven generations back, Lopez says. They have the state’s original water rights to match, including Colorado’s oldest continuously operated water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, an acequia established in 1852.
Prior to statehood, the territorial government recognized acequia water rights. But when the Colorado Constitution established the right of prior appropriation, the priority scheme of “first in time, first in right” became the law, challenging communal rights.
“It was very difficult for [acequias] to go to water court and say, ‘This guy is taking my water,’” Lopez says. “It was very difficult to quantify the use and who was using it.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Colorado Legislature passed the Acequia Recognition Law. The law was developed by Rep. Ed Vigil with the help of the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, an entity that represents more than 73 acequias and 300 families who depend on them. Amended in 2013, the law solidifies the rights of acequia users. According to the Colorado Acequia Handbook, it allows “acequias to continue to exercise their traditional roles in governing community access to water, and also strengthens their ability to protect their water.”
In order to be recognized under the Acequia Recognition Act, acequias needed bylaws. Over the past six years, Colorado Open Lands, the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, and the University of Colorado Boulder have partnered to help 42 acequias write bylaws, thereby protecting their water. “The bylaws were still based, in large part, on those oral traditions,” Lopez says, “and included protective language that said, ‘If a water right is sold, or a piece of land is sold, that acequia gets the first right to purchase those rights.’”
Even having water rights doesn’t guarantee water access: Over the past few decades, the federal government has settled longstanding water rights cases with sovereign tribes, in many cases backdating tribal water rights to the dates of their reservations’ establishment. Although the tribes now have the nation’s oldest established water rights, they haven’t always, and they still come up against structural and financial barriers that prevent them from developing water and getting the real benefit of those rights.
Of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as of 2019 only 36 tribal water rights settlements had been federally approved. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado are among that small number, but despite their long journey, the tribes still don’t have access to all the water they own.
Tribal water rights have their roots in the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 case which established tribal water rights based on the date the federal government created their reservations—thereby moving tribal water rights to “first in line” among users.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the U.S. government filed and worked through claims on behalf of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes to surface waters in southwestern Colorado. In the 1980s, Congress approved a settlement between the tribes, the federal government and other parties; in 2000, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act was amended, entitling tribes to water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Animas-La Plata Project (A-LP), as well as from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir. Construction on A-LP began in 2001, and the project’s key feature, Lake Nighthorse—named for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell—began filling in 2009.
Prior to the Dolores Project, many people living in Towaoc, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, did not have running water and instead trucked it in to fill water tanks at their homes, says Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director with the Keystone Policy Center and former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. His late father, Ernest House, Sr., was pivotal in that fight for water. “I was fortunate, my father was able to see A-LP completed. I think he probably, in his own right, couldn’t believe that it would have been done and could be done,” he says. But even today, some Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute communities still lack access to water, and aging infrastructure from the 1980s needs updating and repairs.
“Our tribes as sovereign nations cannot maintain or move forward without access to water,” House says. “We have to remind people that we have tribal nations in Colorado, and that we have other tribes that continue to call Colorado home, that were removed from the state, either by treaty or forced removal,” he says, adding that acknowledging the difficult past must be a part of conversations about the future.
Those conversations include state, regional, and federal-level water planning. The Colorado tribes are engaged in Colorado’s basin roundtable process, with both tribes occupying seats on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says Greg Johnson, who heads the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Supply Planning Section (and serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees). Through the roundtables, local stakeholders conduct basin-wide water planning that is eventually integrated into the statewide Colorado Water Plan. However, until recently, tribal involvement in regional Colorado River negotiations between the seven U.S. basin states and federal government has been nonexistent. Change is brewing—a 2018 federal Tribal Water Study highlighted how tribal water resources could impact Colorado River operations, while a new Water and Tribes Initiative is working to build tribal capacity and participation in water negotiations throughout the basin.
“The Utes have been in what we call Colorado for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years,” House says. “It would be a shame if we were left out of the conversations [about water].”
The External Costs of Industry
Government is vital to addressing the legacy of environmental injustice, and preventing future problems, but finding solutions also demands reconsidering how business is done.
Consider Colorado’s relationship with the extraction industry, visible in the 19th-century mines that pock mountain towns, uranium-rich communities like Nulca, and the escalation of oil and gas drilling today. Colorado is an “epicenter” of extraction and environmental justice issues, says Stephanie Malin, associate professor at Colorado State University and a sociologist who studies energy development and extraction.
Lack of local control in the past has been especially frustrating, Malin says, since private corporations earn profits off the resources but then outsource the impacts. In the end, extractive industries have a track record of leaving communities and governments to bear the costs of cleanup.
Take Gold King Mine as one high-profile example. In August 2015, wastewater from an abandoned mine in San Juan County contaminated the Animas River between Silverton and Durango. Contractors hired by EPA accidentally caused 3 million gallons of mine waste, laden with heavy metals, to wash into the Animas. New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation all filed to sue EPA, with farmers reporting that they couldn’t water their crops and others saying they had to truck in alternative water supplies. But those responsible for the contamination were long-gone. Like tens of thousands of other mines in the region, the Gold King Mine was abandoned in the early 20th century.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly called Superfund—which Congress passed in 1980, was originally set up as a “polluter tax” on oil, gas and chemical companies at risk of contaminating communities or the environment. But Congress never reauthorized the tax, which expired in 1995. By the early 21st century, the fund was bankrupt. Today, these cleanups are funded entirely by taxpayers.
“It’s part of a bigger pattern of privatizing profit and nationalizing, or socializing, risk,” Malin says. “Then, communities and the environment are left holding the ‘external’ costs.” Those external costs, she says, are nearly unquantifiable: “The intergenerational impacts in particular are so hard to gauge, in terms of what the communities are absorbing.”
While these problems can seem intractable, there are solutions, Malin says. For example, the bond amounts companies are required to pay up-front should better reflect the actual cost of cleanup, she says. Last year, Colorado lawmakers made strides to unburden taxpayers in just that way, with an update to Colorado’s old mining law.
The new Colorado law, HB19-1113, makes sure water quality impacts from mining are accounted for and long-term impacts are avoided. The law says that the industry can no longer self bond—a practice that allowed mine operators to demonstrate they had the financial resources to cover clean-up costs rather than providing the resources up front. Without self bonding, taxpayers won’t be left paying for remediation if the company goes bankrupt. It also requires mine operators to factor water quality protection costs into their bond—and requires most to develop a water quality treatment plan. This means that reclamation plans must include a reasonable end date for any needed water quality treatment, hopefully ensuring Colorado will avoid new perpetually polluting mines.
State lawmakers are currently looking at a more encompassing environmental justice bill, HB20-1143, introduced in January 2020. At press time the bill was still under consideration. If it moves forward as introduced, the bill would increase the maximum civil fine for air and water quality violations—from $10,000 per day to $47,357 per day, which would be adjusted annually according to the consumer price index—reallocating some of the financial burden back on polluters. It would also authorize the use of the money in the state’s water quality improvement fund, which is where those water quality violation fines go, to pay for projects addressing impacts to communities. The bill would also bolster the state’s environmental justice efforts, with a new environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson who would run the advisory board and advocate for environmental justice communities.
Speaking up for Tomorrow’s Climate
Environmental justice can’t be about a single issue, says Lizeth Chacón, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial-justice, member-led organization based in Denver and Pueblo. That means looking at water-focused environmental justice alongside related issues such as climate change, racial justice, inequities, poverty, housing, power dynamics, and more.
“When we are talking to our members, we are talking to them about the fact that they are working two jobs and still cannot put dinner on the table in the week, talking that they live in fear of being deported and being separated from their families, talking about the fact that they are sick, or have headaches, or have to spend money on water because they can’t drink the water coming out of their tap like other people can,” she says. “It can’t be seen as one issue … This work has to be holistic.”
Currently, the Colorado People’s Alliance is working on a climate campaign directed by its members in Commerce City. “They said, ‘This is something that’s impacting all of us, regardless of where we’re from, whether we’re undocumented or documented, what our economic status is,’” she says. The Alliance is focused on greenhouse gas emissions, which have immediate health impacts and long-term water effects.
Another approach in northeast Denver is proceeding thanks to an EPA environmental justice grant, in which organizers will convene youth, local leaders, and scientists to create a community science project that leads to a more fishable and swimmable Denver South Platte River. The river flows through Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, but it used to be a dumping ground, with a landfill beside its banks. Clean ups and improved recreational access, much of which has been spearheaded by the nonprofit Greenway Foundation since its founding in 1974, have created opportunities for kayakers downtown, but river access in northeast Denver, beyond the popular Confluence Park, is limited. In addition, E. Coli levels are often high, making swimming inadvisable. Access to a healthy waterway makes communities more vibrant and whole, supporting health, wellbeing, recreation, and cultural and spiritual practices, but also connection. This may be the only recreational water access available to some urbanites.
“Rivers are one of the major pathways to healing the environment and healing ourselves,” said Jorge Figueroa at an initial workshop for this project in December 2019, where they began to establish a youth advisory board. Figueroa runs El Laboratorio, an organization that brings people together from different disciplines and cultures to creatively solve environmental challenges. (He is also on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) He’s working on this project with Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit that provides outdoor education, recreation and experiences to youth who may not otherwise have these opportunities; and Colorado State University, which is developing a new campus at the National Western Center, called Spur, in the neighborhood. The partners expect to have a plan ready by the end of 2020, and the project should begin in 2021.
Figueroa, who grew up and has family in Puerto Rico, also witnessed, up close, the wave of climate refugees who left his home state after Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017.
“It’s critical for us to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and in the reliability of our municipal potable water systems,” Figueroa says. “But from an equity perspective, we need to ensure that the more than a trillion dollars that will be invested in the nation’s public water systems provide the most benefit to the most people.” His suggestion to build climate resiliency in an equitable way: water conservation. “Water conservation can be a supreme water equity tool: It provides cheaper water for the community and more resiliency and reliability for the system. It’s not only an ideal climate change adaptation strategy but also is one of the top, by far, equity water strategies.” When you don’t consider equity in water decisions, you can make vulnerable communities more vulnerable, he says.
Whether working to improve environmental justice structurally and physically through conservation and resiliencies, or politically and financially through new regulations, bonding or taxation, there are many opportunities to do better. But there are also social justice elements to work on. Chacón recommends involving community members at the beginning of a process—not at the end. She says it’s important to listen—and to not dismiss people when they disagree.
Looking forward, it’s up to everyone in positions of power to actively create space for disadvantaged communities to lead, says Chacón. “To us, the people who are closest to the pain are the ones closest to the solution because they know what’s happening in their community best of anyone.”
Some of the principles of engaging communities in these situations are “almost universal,” says Colorado’s Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s Environmental Justice Program. Wenstrom worked in Flint over the course of a year following the water emergency, “assisting them to connect with processes, in understanding what their rights are, and helping them learn how to raise their voices effectively,” he says.
He says that where communities and families are already overburdened—with poverty, crime, racism—they often don’t have time, expertise or resources to recognize the problems, nevermind address them. “In addition, people in low-income communities may be less inclined to raise their voices for various reasons,” Wenstrom says. Reasons could include racism, job discrimination, or, for some, the fear of being identified as an illegal resident.
He says officials like him who come into communities as outsiders must be careful, persistent, and work to build trust. “As trust builds, we can then start pointing people toward tackling issues related to pollution or public health,” he says. But, Wenstrom cautions, if people don’t believe they can make a difference, they won’t raise their voices in the first place.
Laura Paskus is a reporter in Albuquerque N.M., where her show, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” airs on New Mexico PBS. Caitlin Coleman is editor of Headwaters magazine.
The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors briefly discussed fluoride in drinking water at its meeting on Feb. 13.
PAWSD stopped putting fluoride in the local water supply in 2005.
“The state has contacted us, and they would like to give us a presentation on the pros and cons of [fluoridation of] the water,” PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey said. “We do not put fluoride in the water. I have no wish to put fluoride in the water. I told the state I’ll be happy to sit through their little spiel.”
Asked for comment on the fluoride issue, San Juan Basin Public Health’s (SJBPH) Brian Devine, Water and Air Quality Program manager, sent the following statement via email: “SJBPH supports the evidence-based practice of public water providers distributing water with the optimal levels of fluoride for public health. For some water providers, that means adding fluoride to drinking water, for others in naturally highly-fluoridated areas, it means removing it. Optimal levels of fluoride strengthen growing teeth in children and protect tooth enamel from plaque in adults, leading to less tooth decay. This means lower lifetime health costs and improves the opportunity for everyone to live a healthier life. These benefits led community water fluoridation to be named one of the top ten public health achievements of the twentieth century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Presenting to City Council Feb. 11, SGM Water Engineer Rick Huggins told councilors that the project has gone as expected locally, after the city’s recent water quality plans were set into motion when the Colorado Department of Public Health increased disinfectant residual requirements for water systems, which Craig couldn’t meet in 2016.
Previously, Craig was using free chlorine to keep its water clean, but due to the failure to meet state requirements, the City of Craig had to act.
According to Huggins, after months of studies and workshops, council members decided a few key upgrades along with treating the city’s water system with monochloramine was the most cost-effective solution to keep the water safe. The project was expected to cost $5.2 million, requiring the city to increase rates to help finance the entire project.
According to Huggins, SGM expects the project to cost $3.128 million in the end, which is below the $3.375 million the company estimated costs would be at the start of the project.
The city announced to residents in their latest water bill that the monochloramine changeover will be implemented sometime in March…
Huggins did add that the project has run into scheduling issues that has pushed the project back 4-6 weeks, but he said that SGM anticipates that they’ll have Craig’s water treatment system compliant with state regulations by April 1.
One Year After EPA Pledged to Act on PFAS Exposure, Key Parts of the Strategy Have Yet to Be Implemented
Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined a group of senators in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler requesting he provide an updated timeline for when the EPA will implement commitments made in the agency’s plan to combat exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The EPA released its PFAS Action Plan one year ago today and has yet to implement many of the commitments outlined in the strategy. Bennet, who raised concerns about flaws in the EPA’s initial plan, is an author of the PFAS Action Plan of 2019 and has long worked to address contamination issues across Colorado.
“As you are aware, communities across the country are struggling to respond to the widespread issue of PFAS contamination. The human health risks from this class of chemicals, which include birth defects, various forms of cancer, and immune system dysfunction, are still being examined, and the uncertainty has caused great concern among our constituents,” wrote Bennet and the senators in the letter.
The lawmakers went on to underscore that the PFAS Action Plan alone is insufficient to address the full scope and urgency of the problems associated with PFAS exposure, which is why failure to take an initial step to implement this plan is particularly concerning. They also highlighted that the EPA committed to establish federal drinking water standards last year for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, but have also failed to follow through on that pledge.
In their letter, the senators also addressed other parts of the plan that have not been prioritized, including important remediation efforts to help expedite cleanup of PFAS contamination under the EPA Superfund law.
“Yet, despite then-Administrator Scott Pruitt committing the EPA to designating these materials [PFOA and PFOS] as hazardous substances in May 2018, the EPA has not even sent a proposal to the Office of Management & Budget for interagency review, let alone published it for public comment,” wrote Bennet and his colleagues.
The senators closed their letter with a request that the EPA provide an update on the status of every commitment made in the PFAS Action Plan, as well as an update on the timeline for executing the priorities included in the strategy.
Bennet has long worked to address the health effects, cleanup, and reimbursement issues associated with PFAS, chemicals used in firefighting foams that have contaminated drinking water sources near military bases across the country, including at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado Springs.
Bennet pushed for a nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS and for additional funding for remediation and clean up.
Bennet secured $10 million for the nationwide Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in the 2018 omnibus package.
Bennet secured an additional $44 million in funding for Air Force environmental restoration and remediation in the 2018 omnibus package. A significant amount of that funding was used for remediation around Peterson AFB in Colorado.
Bennet supported a provision in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that required a plan on how the Department of Defense might reimburse state or municipal agencies that expended funds to provide alternative water supplies.
Bennet wrote to the CDC to ask that the nationwide study include communities in Colorado near Peterson AFB.
Bennet visited communities around Peterson AFB to receive an update on remediation efforts. There, Bennet also received an update on the challenges water districts are having receiving reimbursement for steps they took to clean up drinking water.
Bennet demanded the Trump Administration (CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)) release the results of a study regarding what levels of certain chemicals are safe in drinking water. According to news reports at the time, the EPA had been working to block the release of results from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study on the toxicity of certain PFAS.
Bennet passed an amendment to provide funding for the Department of Defense to reimburse state and municipal water authorities for actions they took to clean up and mitigate PFAS in drinking water. The amendment was included in the Department of Defense-Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill, which passed the Senate in 2018. The provision was not included in the final version of the bill that was signed into law.
Bennet wrote to the CDC/ATSDR to voice disappointment that the CDC will not include military and civilian firefighters in its investigations of the human health effects of PFAS contamination pursuant to Section 316 of the FY19 NDAA.
Bennet and his colleagues introduced the PFAS Action Plan of 2019, legislation that would mandate the EPA, within one year of enactment, declare PFAS as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup funds under the EPA Superfund law, and enable a requirement that polluters undertake or pay for remediation.
Bennet introduced an amendment to the NDAA to authorize the U.S. Air Force to reimburse local water districts, like those around Peterson AFB, for actions they took to treat and mitigate PFAS contamination.
Following Bennet’s 2018 letter calling on the CDC to include Colorado communities near Peterson AFB in the nationwide study on the health effects of PFAS, Bennet praised the agency’s decision to include these communities.
More than 12,000 El Paso County water users have been impacted by the chemical, which tainted the Widefield aquifer.
In 2016 the EPA lowered its health advisory levels for the compounds, vastly expanding the number of southern El Paso County residents considered at risk for exposure. A subsequent study tied the contamination to the decades-long use of a firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base.
Water districts in the towns of Security, Widefield and Fountain have either tied into uncontaminated water from Colorado Springs Utilities, or installed filtering systems to eliminate the chemicals.
In the letter, the senators say they believe the agency has not acted quickly enough to make water safe…
The lawmakers are asking for the EPA to prioritize the establishment of a maximum contamination level for drinking water and to allow cost-recovery for cleanup by labeling PFAS as hazardous substances.
A new court document states that progress continues toward resolving an environmental lawsuit against Colorado Springs for degrading Fountain Creek.
The document was filed last week in Denver at the U.S. District Court for Colorado, where the lawsuit is pending.
“The parties have continued to make significant progress toward a settlement that encompasses an agreement for relief for all violations alleged,” the court filing states…
After a trial last year, a judge decided Colorado Springs had violated its permit that regulates discharges of the city’s storm water sewer system into the creek. Remaining to be decided is what the city would do to remedy the violations.
The new document states that since October, the five parties have been exchanging drafts of a proposed agreement on how to settle the dispute.
“The parties have met monthly (since November and) continued to have monthly scheduled settlement meetings so that they can continue their progress toward (a settlement),” the document states.
Last week, Senior Judge John L. Kane granted the parties’ request to keep the case on hold until May 22, so they can continue their work. Kane is presiding over the case.
He emphasized, however, he would not keep the case on hold beyond May 22 based on the same grounds that the parties have been stating.
Water wells within a one-mile drain path from Buckley Air Force Base will soon be tested for chemicals similar to those that have contaminated water sources adjacent to other military bases across the United States, the state health department and the Air Force announced Friday.
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plan to begin taking sample from wells to the north and west of the base by February 18.
Well owners will be notified by February 10.
The operation seeks to determine whether firefighting foam used in prior years’ aircraft fire training exercises has accumulated to levels deemed unhealthy by the Environmental Protection Agency…
The South Adams County Water & Sanitation District shut down three wells in 2018 after the water supply near Interstate 270 and Quebec Street was found to measure high levels of PFAS. That location is approximately six miles northeast of Buckley.
Owners of wells near Buckley will be notified if testing reveals unacceptable levels of PFAS. In that case, the Air Force said it would immediately provide alternate sources of water, including bottled, and seek permanent resolution through the well owner and regulators.
CDPHE’s various regulatory bodies and rulemaking commissions have been tasked with leading the state’s charge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate an economy-wide transition to clean energy; they’re helping oil and gas regulators overhaul state rules in the wake of a landmark fracking bill, and after a federal air-quality downgrade, they’re stepping up efforts to tackle the Front Range’s ozone problem; and they’re dealing with emerging public-health concerns about vaping, toxic firefighting chemicals and more…
On Tuesday, January 21, Putnam and CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan delivered their annual briefing to lawmakers as required by Colorado’s State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive, and Transparent Government (SMART) Act. While touting the department’s progress in 2019, including the adoption of an electric-vehicle mandate and new oil and gas emissions rules, officials painted a picture of a department that’s increasingly underfunded and “oversubscribed” — particularly its Air Pollution Control Division, responsible for most of its climate and clean-air efforts.
Colorado employs just one toxicologist, who is tasked with evaluating public-health risks across more than a half-dozen environmental and health divisions; by comparison, Putnam told lawmakers, Minnesota has 38 state toxicologists and California has over a hundred. CDPHE has just one mobile air-monitoring unit, which typically needs to be deployed for weeks at a time to be effective. The number of inspectors assigned to oil and gas sites, responsible for finding leaks of greenhouse gases like methane and ozone-forming pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hasn’t kept up with the industry’s explosive growth over the last decade.
“We’re seeing a significant gap [between] our capability and what I think the public is demanding right now,” Putnam told lawmakers in a joint meeting of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the House Energy and Environment Committee.
In its 2020-’21 budget request, CDPHE is seeking funding for 21 additional full-time employees to beef up the air-pollution division’s staff, including doubling the size of its oil and gas inspection unit. The requested staff and funding increases would also allow the department to purchase a new mobile air-monitoring unit and establish two new VOC monitoring sites in oil- and gas-producing areas along the Front Range.
Of course, funding increases never come easy in Colorado, and department officials are also pushing for long-term solutions, including legislation this session that would allow the air-pollution division to increase the fees that it’s able to collect from polluters through its permitting and enforcement processes. A bill passed in 2018 raised the statutory cap on those fees by 25 percent, but with funding needs continuing to grow, the department now wants to eliminate the cap entirely.
State officials last month designated a new, and popular, stretch of Boulder Creek from the mouth of Boulder Canyon through the park as “impaired” due to elevated levels of E. coli.
But tubers, swimmers, fishermen and women will still likely be able to take a dip this summer if they wish.
The new designation by the state for the creek’s west Boulder stretch adds to the existing impairment of the waterway from 13th Street east to its confluence with South Boulder Creek, according to Colorado Water Quality Control Division spokesperson Ian Dickson…
The determination was made based on a “robust” data set of measurements for the E. coli bacteria, Dickson said.
“Every two years, the (state health) department works with the (Water Quality Control) Commission to examine water quality data and identify impaired waters,” Dickson said. “… The department thanks city of Boulder for this information, and we encourage communities to continue to send data so we can work together to protect the environment.”
Boulder spokesperson Meghan Wilson said the city is working on a communication strategy for informing residents and potential creek users of the newly designated impaired stretch of creek. But unlike a swimming beach at a reservoir or other body of water, local officials have little ability to restrict human access to a stream like Boulder Creek, Wilson said…
…earlier in the week, Dickson did offer a response to Boulder Waterkeeper data the advocacy group used to assert there is a that there is a “human waste footprint” to the detected E. coli.
E. coli is a bacterial marker for fecal pollution, which lives in the intestines of humans, wildlife, cattle and dogs, but is not always harmful to humans. However, one strand, known as 0157:H7, can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and even life-threatening conditions…
“The one sample taken does not provide conclusive evidence that human source bacteria were present. The strain of bacteria the lab tested for could also come from other animals, such as raccoons and geese. Again, the lab indicated more data is needed to determine whether the strain is from humans versus other animals. At this time, even with these E.coli and human fecal bacterial levels, there is no indicator of an illicit discharge or other noncompliance with the university’s permit.”
Colorado officials will continue to reach out to drinking water districts to encourage testing for synthetic chemicals known as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances — otherwise known to the public under the PFAS acronym umbrella.
The sign-up rate, however, has been minimal.
About one week into the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s campaign, officials said about 8 percent of Colorado’s roughly 790 drinking water districts have signed up for tests…
That’s not to say that officials aren’t pleased with the sign-up rate so far. They plan to send email notifications to drinking water districts to remind them of the available funds over the coming weeks…
While the [EPA’s] current advisory limits are voluntary, they are determining whether to formally regulate two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. A decision is expected later in 2020.
We are now accepting applications for watershed implementation projects that address water quality impairments caused by nonpoint sources of selenium, sediment, pathogens and/or nutrients OR protect waterbodies currently meeting water quality standards from degradation due to nonpoint sources of pollution.
The EPA Annual Meeting reporting on activities at the Superfund site will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Abbots Room, Abbey Conference Center. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Environmental Protection Agency officials will be present as well as representatives of Colorado Legacy Land to answer questions and take comments from Fremont County residents. The Lincoln Park neighborhood and the site of the former Cotter uranium mill south of Cañon City were declared a Superfund site in 1984 due to the widespread groundwater and soils contamination from the operation of the mill.
The September meeting of the Community Advisory Group for the Lincoln Park Cotter Superfund site was held Sept. 19 at the Garden Park Room.
Updates on early cleanup actions included the TCE (trichloroethylene) plume near the Shadow Hills Golf Club. The Work Plan was approved in July 2019 by the agencies. Testing of all the soil borings is complete and installation of monitoring wells began Sept. 26.
Emily Tracy, chairperson of the Community Advisory Group, states “Now that early actions toward the cleanup of the Lincoln Park Site are moving forward under the ownership of Colorado Legacy Land, the community will be able to have critical input in the process. At the meeting, you will be able to ask why these actions are being taken and how the physical action of removal, moving soils, pumping water from the primary impoundment will move the cleanup toward the Remedial Investigation of the site. That is the next step in the EPA CERCLA process which may be proposed as early as next year.”
Tracy continued: “It should be remembered that 5-6 million tons of toxic materials sit in the 157-acre impoundment ponds. According to past estimates, 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water and 1.5 million tons of contaminated soils sit waiting for cleanup, and still threaten our community if anything goes wrong.”
“If a Lincoln Park resident has a well, they are advised not to use it because of contamination from the uranium mill. Wouldn’t it be great to have the use of that water?” asks CAG member Sharyn Cunningham, who had to stop using her wells many years ago. “If there is any hope for cleaning up our Lincoln Park wells, we all need to make sure it is done and done right!”
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado was the last Western state to legalize greywater usage in 2013. Officials say that by 2050, our water supply could fall short for over one million people. Climate change makes the future of Colorado water even more uncertain.
Colorado’s Water Plan wants to close the gap and recognizes greywater as one tool to help make that happen. However, not a single state-approved greywater system has been built since it was legalized. Only Denver, Castle Rock and Pitkin County have adopted the code, known as Regulation 86, that regulates how greywater gets done in the state.
Avery Ellis isn’t happy about that. He was closely involved when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment set the rules.
“It takes a little civil disobedience and a little public support to push these laws into local adoption,” the greywater installer said.
In his yard in Longmont, there are young trees and shrubs that are watered through one of his greywater systems.
Longmont isn’t Denver or Castle Rock and it’s nowhere near Pitkin County. In addition to his water saving rebellion, Ellis teaches and helps others how to go greywater without a permit. Because so far, even in the places where it’s been adopted, no one has even applied for a greywater permit.
Not a single one.
In Colorado, only two types of greywater systems are legal. This first one is called “laundry to landscape.” The second is more complicated and costly. Wastewater from a shower or sink is collected in a storage tank and is used for the landscape or to flush toilets. There’s internal plumbing and the water needs to be filtered and treated and can’t be stored for more than 48 hours…
There’s been some interest in these water saving systems in Pitkin County, which adopted greywater in 2018, but environmental health manager Kurt Dahl thinks that “due to the complication of the regulation they didn’t see the benefit.”
The city of Castle Rock is the newest to adopt the state’s greywater rules, but only for new construction. Retrofitting an old home or building isn’t allowed. Mark Marlowe, the director of Castle Rock Water, cites cost as the contributing factor behind that decision…
That doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen, Marlowe said, but they don’t have the resources to allow just anyone to put in a greywater system.
And that’s why some cities and counties have chosen not to take on greywater at all. Douglas County said it would be too complicated and costly for the county to oversee. They also point to the potential for public health risks.
Boulder won’t either, at least right now. Joe Taddeucci, the city water resources manager, said they first need to study if adopting greywater is worth it. One major concern are water rights. Does the city have the OK to use greywater on lawns, instead of sending it back to the river for the next user downstream? How much water would actually be conserved? And what would it take to regulate this?
…One of the only examples of a large-scale greywater system in the state is a dorm at the University of Colorado Boulder. Williams Village North was built with plumbing that collects wastewater from showers and sinks to flush toilets. Since the city of Boulder hasn’t adopted greywater, the system operates under a research exemption.
“Testing for chlorine levels, alkaline levels. And greywater systems of this size and magnitude are still fairly new technology, and we do want to make sure that we understand it better before we implement in a new building.”
At peak use, when students are in school and the dorm is full, the system uses about 2,000 gallons of greywater a day to flush toilets. It’s an example of where some of the biggest year-round savings can happen.
Sybil Sharvelle, an associate engineering professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, has been involved in greywater research for nearly 20 years. She also advised the state on the rules and is disappointed to see all the growth and construction over the past 10 years has failed to include greywater.
Prospect Lake in Memorial Park has been closed indefinitely after a test found toxic blue-green algae in the water, Colorado Springs officials said Friday.
A “precautionary water sample,” taken from the lake Friday morning by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, tested positive for mycrocystin toxin, also known as blue-green algae.
The lake’s swim beach was roped off and closure signs were posted. Fishing areas remain open, but anglers are encouraged to clean the fish and remove guts. Rentals are not available, and pets are not allowed.
“Given today’s positive test for mycrocystin toxin, we have closed Prospect Lake for usage,” said Erik Rodriguez of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services in a statement. “CDPHE will continue to test weekly until the bacteria clears up.”
In the meantime, the city has banned swimming, bathing, paddleboarding, motorized and nonmotorized boats even with permits, tubing and water skiing.
During recent testing mandated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment at 20 different sites earlier this year, the town discovered that seven had lead levels in excess of the state’s maximum allowable limit of 15 parts per billion. The finding comes just months after Frisco discovered a similar issue in their sampling pool.
Dillon officials stress that the town has good, clean surface water.
“We don’t have lead in our source water,” said Scott O’Brien, Dillon’s public works director. “We’ve monitored for that, and it’s not the issue. … The issue is the materials that were used prior to 1987 for constructing homes, copper pipe with leaded solder. In addition to that, a lot of fixtures like faucets were constructed with either brass or bronze — metal alloys that contain lead.”
O’Brien said that because the source water is so “aggressive,” it’s leeching the lead out of older pipes and fixtures at testing sites, resulting in the elevated rates. In determining aggressiveness, the town looks at four main factors: pH levels, alkalinity, temperature and hardness.
The pH level in the water measures how acidic or basic the water is on a scale of 0 to 14 — anything below 7 is considered acidic, and anything higher is considered basic. In general, high acidity means the water is more corrosive, and more likely to leech metal ions like lead and copper. Dillon’s source water is naturally about 7.3, or slightly leaning towards the basic side.
Alkalinity is a measure of the buffering ability of the water, essentially the ratio of hydrogen ions versus hydroxide ions that determines the water’s ability to neutralize acid. O’Brien noted that Dillon’s water has low alkalinity. Temperature is self-explanatory, literally describing how hot or cold the water is — wherein hotter water is more reactive and aggressive than cold water. Hardness measures the mineral concentration in the water, or what it’s naturally picking up as it flows along. Because Dillon uses its source water so quickly, it is relatively soft.
“We’re the first in line to pick it up, and it doesn’t have the chance to pick up these other minerals and other things that help reduce the aggressiveness of the water,” said O’Brien.
This is a problem that Dillon has dealt with in the past. The town’s testing also returned high lead levels in both 2012 and 2014, and officials have been working with the state since to address the issue. In 2014, the town attempted to adjust the pH levels up to about 8.5 on the scale, which appeared to have worked over the last five years. Though, due to recent changes in regulations from the state level — which essentially requires towns to zero in on high-risk testing sites to determine the worst-case scenarios for water quality issues — new issues are being discovered.
“To get a representative sample pool they don’t want us to go over the distribution system geographically, and sample it spread out,” said Mark Helman, chief water plant operator. “They want us to sample these particular sites built from 1983 to 1987 (before the Lead Contamination Control Act in 1988) they know are going to give us the worst results. … This is a process of us learning where the worst sites are that we have, testing those sites, seeing how our water is doing at those sites, and if we have a problem we want to address the worst case scenario.”
Both O’Brien and Helman noted that they already have a plan to try and address the issue of overly aggressive water. The plan is to add soda ash — sodium carbonate or baking soda — during the water treatment process to increase pH levels, alkalinity and hardness to the water to reduce aggressiveness. However, because it includes changes to the plant, the new process must first be signed off on by the state.
O’Brien said that once the state approves the town’s new water treatment methods they’ll be able to implement the new process quickly, though the review process could take between 30 and 60 days.
Click here to go to the Colorado Legislature website to read the bill:
Concerning the point of compliance related to the treatment process involved in treating reclaimed domestic wastewater for indoor nonpotable uses within a building where the general public can access plumbing fixtures that are used to deliver the reclaimed domestic wastewater.
SESSION: 2019 Regular Session
SUBJECTS: Natural Resources & Environment Water
In 2018, the general assembly authorized the use of reclaimed domestic wastewater for irrigation of food crops and industrial hemp and for toilet flushing if, at the point of compliance in the water treatment process, the reclaimed domestic wastewater met certain water quality standards.
The bill authorizes the water quality control commission (commission) to adopt rules requiring a point of compliance for disinfection residual related to the treatment process for reclaimed domestic wastewater used for toilet flushing within a building where the general public can access the plumbing fixtures used to deliver the reclaimed domestic wastewater. If the commission adopts the rules, the rules must establish a point of compliance for disinfection residual at a single location between where reclaimed domestic wastewater is delivered to the occupied premises and before the water is distributed for use in the occupied premises.
The Pentagon is reportedly lobbying for a more lenient standard for cleaning up toxic chemicals used for decades in firefighting foam that have been found in drinking water in southern El Paso County and around the country.
Even if the Pentagon is successful, the Air Force appears unlikely to get off the hook for cleaning up the contaminated Widefield aquifer serving tens of thousands of residents south of Colorado Springs, state health officials said.
The Defense Department’s push to revise safety standards comes as it faces billions of dollars in cleanup costs tied to its decades-long use of a firefighting foam laced with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals, known as PFAS, are tied to cancer, liver disease and low infant birth weight.
The lobbying appears aimed at influencing the Environmental Protection Agency’s groundwater cleanup standard — a level at which cleanup would be required of polluters.
In a report to Congress, the Pentagon said an appropriate level is 380 parts per trillion, the New York Times reported. It’s at least five times what the EPA says could be harmful to people, and dozens of times higher than another federal agency says is toxic to people.
At that level, the military could avoid paying to clean up many contaminated sites across the nation, said David Andrews, senior scientist for the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group.
“Even if it’s the same number of sites, the amount of cleanup you’re doing at each site would be drastically reduced,” Andrews said. “The likely impact is that DoD is really trying to pass on the responsibilities and the cost for cleaning up this contamination. Which is dreadful.”
In a statement, the Pentagon said it takes its cleanup responsibility “seriously.”
“DOD is not seeking a different or weaker cleanup standard but wants the standard risk-based cleanup approach that is based on science and applies to everyone,” the statement said.
Still, one of Delaware’s Democratic U.S. senators, Tom Carper, claimed in a letter to the EPA that the Defense Department is currently only cleaning up sites where groundwater readings exceed 400 parts per trillion, and only removing the chemicals to 70 ppt. The Pentagon was joined by NASA and the Small Business Administration in lobbying for more relaxed standards, the senator said.
The Pentagon report only referenced two PFAS varieties — PFOA and PFOS — even though thousands of other varieties are known to exist. The report was issued last year, and reported Thursday by The New York Times, along with Carper’s letter.
The Defense Department’s maneuvering is expected to have little impact on cleanup operations around Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado health officials say.
State regulations would still force the Air Force to clean up the tainted Widefield aquifer to a more stringent standard that is in line with the EPA’s current health advisory, according to Kelly MacGregor, a Colorado Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman.
The state’s Water Quality Control Commission voted unanimously in April to adopt a site-specific groundwater quality standard of 70 ppt for the same two chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — combined.
Even without the state standard, the aquifer’s contamination downstream from the base is so bad that cleanup efforts around Peterson would likely go unaffected by the Pentagon’s lobbying.
Seven wells drilled about three years ago in the Widefield aquifer showed PFOS at levels of 400 ppt or greater. One well drilled at the Colorado Springs Airport found the chemical at 1,600 ppt.
Neither the state’s adopted groundwater standard, nor lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., touch on the thousands of other types of chemicals, also called perfluorinated compounds.
For communities affected by use of the foam, such as Security, Widefield and Fountain, that could be a significant problem, Andrews said.
For example, another type of chemical called PFHxS is often associated with use of the firefighting foam. And no other type of perfluorinated compound was as common in drinking water samples taken from Security or Fountain wells as PFHxS, nor present at such high levels, according to EPA drinking water data.
A couple of other chemicals were reported as frequently in wells serving Widefield. But again, none were as consistently high as PFHxS.
It also has been found in the drinking water of dozens of other water districts across the country, EPA results show. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says it could cause liver damage and a decreased ability to respond to vaccines.
Several other types of PFAS also have raised health concerns while being found in water systems across the country.
“Really we’d like to see the EPA and the DoD focusing on reducing the total PFAS contamination … shifting into high gear and taking responsibility for cleaning up all of this contamination,” Andrews said.
Colorado Springs and the four parties suing the city now have an extra month to either settle a longstanding lawsuit over federal stormwater permit violations or agree how to continue the case in court.
U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch in December ordered the case paused until this month so the parties could find common ground. The lawsuit was to restart last week, but Matsch extended the break by more than a month.
Now the parties have until April 12 to agree on next steps, or the case goes back to court.
The request for a break in the case came from the plaintiffs — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District — after Matsch ruled that Colorado Springs violated federal stormwater regulations at three development sites.
State health officials and Colorado’s largest water utilities have agreed for a second time to hit pause on a major lawsuit over how to keep lead out of Denver’s drinking water, citing progress in talks that began last fall.
“The main point is that everyone has rolled up their sleeves and is working hard to come up with the best solution that we can that minimizes the lead that folks will be ingesting in their tap water,” said Ron Falco, safe drinking water program manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Last April, the City of Aurora, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, and the Denver Greenway Foundation sued the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to block an order it issued directing Denver Water to install a phosphate-based treatment system to reduce corrosion in old lead pipes. That corrosion can put lead into drinking water in homes and businesses served by lead supply lines and in-house fixtures. Denver Water joined the suit weeks later.
Avoiding lead contamination in drinking water is of paramount importance for water providers and state health officials, as no level is considered safe to ingest. But heightened levels of phosphates in wastewater and irrigation runoff create issues for reservoirs, lakes and streams. This prompted Metro Wastewater and other entities who must treat the phosphate-heavy water to sue, citing damage to the environment and dramatically higher treatment costs.
Denver Water had proposed an alternative, after several years of pilot studies, to use chemicals that would adjust the PH levels of its drinking water, something which the CDPHE determined did not reduce lead corrosion enough to meet the federal standards it is required to uphold.
Among the plaintiffs’ concerns is that phosphate levels in water that is discharged to the South Platte River have to be tightly controlled under provisions of the Clean Water Act. If phosphate levels in treated drinking water rise, wastewater treatment protocols would have to be changed to correct the problem, potentially costing millions of dollars, if not more, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Water Research Foundation.
From an environmental perspective, any increased phosphate in the South Platte River makes fighting such things as algae blooms, which are fueled by nutrients including phosphorous, much more difficult and could make the river less habitable for fish.
Denver Water, and other plaintiffs, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But in a statement, Denver Water Chief Executive Officer Jim Lochhead said, “We are committed to taking the right steps to reduce the risk of lead leaching into water through customers’ plumbing…As we are fully committed to protecting public health, we are also looking for opportunities to minimize downstream impacts from the use of orthophosphate.”
After filing the suit, last summer the parties agreed to engage in talks, placing the lawsuit on hold, giving themselves until last November to agree on a set of treatment protocols.
When that deadline passed, the utilities and the CDPHE requested more time to work, citing progress in the talks. In January, a Denver District Court judge agreed to give everyone until September 20, 2019 to find an acceptable solution.
Under the CDPHE’s original order, Denver must begin using the new treatment protocol by March 20, 2020. To ensure it can meet that deadline, Denver Water is spending $1.2 million to upgrade its water treatment plants so they can implement the new treatment protocols.
Denver is not in violation of the federal law that governs lead in drinking water, but it has been required to monitor and test its system regularly since 2012 after lead was discovered in a small sample of water at some of its customers’ taps.
Lead has continued to appear at taps in some customers’ homes, according to court filings.
Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. There is no lead in the water supply when it leaves Denver Water’s treatment plants. But it can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through lead delivery lines and pipes in older homes. Denver has 58,000 lead service lines in its system and is gradually replacing them. It also advises customers whose homes are serviced by lead lines to use filters to remove any potential contamination.
It is the ongoing concerns about lead that have prompted the state to push for the phosphate treatment, because it reduces lead that reaches customers by 74 percent, compared to less than 50 percent using a PH-based process, according to court filings.
Despite the environmental concerns, the CDPHE maintains that its first job is to protect the health of the thousands of children served by Denver Water in the metro area. Children are most vulnerable to lead contamination.
Falco said he is optimistic that a solution can be found. New pilot studies underway indicate that Denver Water may be able to use roughly one-third the amount of phosphates originally thought were needed and still achieve the same level of lead reduction, CDPHE officials said.
“We have a very engaged group of stakeholders working hard to develop the best solution. This this is going to come to a resolution, certainly by March of 2020. We are going to get there,” Falco said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
More than three years after state health officials okayed the use of so-called graywater in homes and businesses [HB13-1044 (Authorize Graywater Use)], the public has shown no interest in using it, a fact that has baffled water conservation advocates and government officials.
“Unfortunately it’s had very little impact,” said Jon Novick, an environmental public health administrator for the City of Denver.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment approved Regulation 86, as it is known, in May of 2015. It requires that counties opt into the program, creating their own standards and enforcement mechanisms. But Denver, which adopted the rule in 2016, and Pitkin, which adopted it nearly a year ago, are the only two of Colorado’s 64 counties that have chosen to do this. And despite the two counties’ enthusiasm for water conservation, neither the homeowners nor the businesses they serve have sought permits seeking to capture graywater for a second-time use.
Graywater flows out of bathroom sinks, tubs, showers and clothes washers. Nearly half of water used in homes on average goes to these purposes. Reusing it would generate significant water savings, something health officials and water conservation advocates say is critical as Colorado faces escalating water demands—and potential shortfalls— due to population growth, drought and climate change.
Under Regulation 86, homeowners and businesses can capture graywater and then use it to flush toilets and urinals and to water lawns if those lawns have subsurface irrigation systems. Graywater cannot be used in above-ground sprinkler systems.
Graywater is different than recycled water because it requires little treatment. Recycled water, on the other hand, is heavily treated before it is reused because it contains waste water from toilets and other sources.
Brandie Honeycutt is an environmental protection specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She said it’s important that the regulation be widely adopted. To that end the state is planning a series of meetings in the first quarter of this year to examine how the program might be changed to broaden its appeal.
Colorado is among 20 states nationwide that allow use of graywater, according to Berkeley, Calif.-based GrayWater Action.
But Colorado’s Reg. 86 has numerous requirements, in some cases making it more burdensome than it is in other states. To use graywater indoors, for example, a home or office needs a dual plumbing system, with one set of pipes carrying treated drinking water, and the other set carrying graywater. Even new developments in Colorado don’t typically incorporate these dual-pipe systems, because they are expensive.
And retrofitting older homes and buildings is costly as well, Honeycutt said.
“You’re never going to see this in old construction because you would have to do a whole lot of rework,” Honeycutt said.
In addition, under the regulation, graywater has to be disinfected and cannot be stored for more than 24 hours.
Douglas County is among the dozens of counties statewide who have opted not to adopt the new rule. Officials there declined to comment on that decision, however a statement on the county’s website cited high costs, possible exposure to pathogens, as well as difficulty enforcing the rules as reasons for their decision not to allow the program in the county.
But those concerns did not prevent Pitkin County from moving forward with the new rule.
“We recognize that a number of other counties haven’t adopted [Reg. 86],” said Kurt Dahl, Pitkin County’s environmental health manager. “Being a leader [in water conservation] we thought it was important to go ahead and adopt them. But since we don’t have any takers, we’re going to have to regroup and see how to move this forward.”
Denver’s Novick and Dahl have several ideas they believe will help the graywater program catch on.
Among them is a tweak that would allow an innovative toilet system — one that doesn’t require dual-piping — to be used. Often seen in other states, the new toilets have a direct connection to a sink, so that once someone finishes washing his or her hands, for instance, the water flows into the toilet tank so that it can be reused for flushing.
This new-age loo eliminates the need for a separate tank to store graywater for toilet flushing, something now required under Reg. 86.
Another idea is to create a grant program that would provide low-interest loans or rebates to encourage homeowners and businesses to install these new toilets and sub-surface irrigation systems.
Similar programs exist to encourage installation of solar energy systems and other green technologies.
“We really need folks to install graywater systems so we can start to prove that they are not going to be a risk to public health,” Novick said. “This will increase the state’s comfort level and then we can come up with other technologies to use. We really want to see this program work.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
When Army Staff Sgt. Samuel Fortune returned from Iraq, his body battered by war, he assumed he’d be safe.
Then the people around him began to get sick. His neighbors, all living near five military bases, complained of tumors, thyroid problems and debilitating fatigue. Soon, the Colorado health department announced an unusually high number of kidney cancers in the region. Then Mr. Fortune’s wife fell ill.
The military, it turned out, had been leaching toxic chemicals into the water for decades.
Mr. Fortune felt “stabbed in the back,” he said. “We give our lives and our bodies for our country, and our government does not live up to their end of the deal.”
That was 2016. Since then, the Defense Department has admitted that it allowed a firefighting foam to slip into at least 55 drinking water systems at military bases around the globe, sometimes for generations. This exposed tens of thousands of Americans, possibly many more, to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS that have been linked to cancers, immune suppression and other serious health problems.
Though the presence of the chemicals has been known for years, an announcement last week from the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time promised regulatory action, a significant acknowledgment of the startling scope of the problem that drew outrage from veterans and others living in contaminated communities.
Acting administrator Andrew Wheeler said that the agency would begin the process of potentially limiting the presence of two of the compounds in drinking water, calling this a “pivotal moment in the history of the agency.”
The admission drew some praise, but many said that it was not enough and that millions of people would keep ingesting the substances while a regulatory process plods along. “It should have been called an inaction plan,” said Judith Enck, a former E.P.A. regional administrator appointed by President Barack Obama.
While the military has used the chemicals extensively, it is far from the only entity to do so, and in recent years, companies like DuPont have come under fire for leaching PFAS into water systems.
All told, 10 million people could be drinking water laced with high levels of PFAS, according to Patrick Breysse, a top official at the federal Centers for Disease Control. Mr. Breysse has called the presence of the chemicals “one of the most seminal public health challenges” of the coming decades.
The residents of Fountain, a mountain-flanked suburb of Colorado Springs, were told of the contamination by local officials who had been required by the E.P.A. to test the water for the substances, a step toward possible regulation. Soon dozens of communities from New York to Washington State discovered their drinking water was also polluted with PFAS.
Many people began demanding that state and military officials test their blood for the chemicals, hoping to learn the extent of their presence in their bodies.
The military has started an expensive cleanup effort that has involved shifting entire municipalities to new water sources and assessing toxic plumes that continue to spread for miles.
Maureen Sullivan, the military’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, said the government had moved “aggressively” to tackle the problem, assessing cleanup duties and looking for alternatives to the firefighting foam, a version of which the military still uses.
“I’m proud of what the Department of Defense has done in the past two-plus years,” she said.
But frustration persists. The military never alerted all of the people who drank polluted water, meaning some are still in the dark. When asked how many people were affected by contamination, Ms. Sullivan said she “couldn’t hazard a guess.”
The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday unveiled its long-awaited plan for tackling the toxic chemicals contaminating the Widefield aquifer, immediately coming under fire from environmental groups and some El Paso County residents for not going far enough.
The agency said it would begin the yearslong process of setting a safe drinking water limit for two types of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds by year’s end, while studying the toxicity of other varieties and taking steps to strengthen groundwater cleanup measures across the nation.
Environmental groups across the nation and residents in southern El Paso County criticized the plan for not going far enough to protect them and millions of other Americans whose drinking water sources contain the man-made chemicals.
The plan does nothing to hasten the implementation of a drinking water standard, and it largely ignores all but a couple of types of the chemicals — including those found most commonly in bloodstreams of Security, Widefield and Fountain residents.
Doug Benevento, the EPA’s regional administrator, said the agency is doing all it can to address the toxic chemicals as quickly as legally possible.
“We get it’s frustrating, because people want something done now,” Benevento said.
“And what we are required to do though under the Safe Drinking Water Act is a scientific process — and there’s an economic portion of it too — that we’re required to go through before we make a final determination. And we’re in that process right now.”
The substances, also known as PFAS, are man-made chemicals used for decades in a military firefighting foam, including at Peterson Air Force Base. They also were used in myriad nonstick household products, such as carpet cleaners, Teflon products and fast-food wrappers.
Also called perfluorinated compounds, they have been linked to several health ailments, including cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol.
Specifically, the EPA’s new 72-page plan calls for proposing a “national drinking water regulatory determination” later this year for the two best-known types of perfluorinated compounds, PFOA and PFOS.
Such determinations are considered an opening step for regulating the chemicals and setting a maximum contaminant level — similar to what exists for such chemicals as lead, cyanide and mercury.
Still, it could take three to five years before the chemicals are regulated, said Bob Benson, an EPA toxicologist.
From the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (Tanya Ishikawa) via The Telluride Daily Planet:
Local volunteers sample waterways throughout the year
Once a month you can find Ethan Funk kneeling down at the edge of Red Mountain Creek with a few bottles at his side. The bottles start out empty, but within a few moments they are filled with water tinted red from the high level of iron in it. After taking temperature readings of the water and air, he gathers up his supplies and heads back to his 2003 Toyota Tacoma truck, where he places the samples in the flatbed, records the time and temperatures, sets the paperwork aside, turns on the engine, and heads back down the mountain towards Ouray.
But Funk is not heading home yet. Before returning, he will visit five more streamside sites to gather more water samples. Then, he will head back to his lab in the back of his office, where he will analyze some samples for pH/alkalinity and hardness levels. Others he will package up to send to a laboratory in Denver, where they will be tested for heavy metals.
He is a citizen scientist for the River Watch program. Though he modestly claims not to be a water expert, the electrical engineer by day and radio DJ by evening has been volunteering to sample water in local creeks and rivers for nearly 13 years. The hydrological data Funk has gathered over the years adds up to thousands of points of data that help characterize water quality in Ouray County.
“I’m not doing this for people today. I’m doing this for people 100 years from now,” Funk said. “If we had information like this from 100 years ago, we would know how much of an impact that all the mining in our area has had on the watershed. But, we don’t, so we have to make estimates. With the data from the samples I take, now people 100 years in the future will understand what has happened to their water quality.”
“Real people doing real science for a real purpose” is the tagline for the statewide River Watch program, which has multiple purposes. Its mission is “to work with voluntary stewards to monitor water quality and other indicators of watershed health and utilize this high quality data to educate citizens and inform decision makers about the condition of Colorado’s waters. This data is also used in the Clean Water Act decision-making process,” according to the group’s website (http://coloradoriverwatch.org).
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Barb Horn started River Watch in 1989, modeled after monthly water sampling programs on Clear Creek and the Eagle River. Both streams were impacted by heavy metals flowing from shut down mines and tailings, which became EPA Superfund sites. Regulators, as well as stakeholders, needed a way to monitor the success of the cleanups.
“The Idarado Mine had just been declared a CERCLA (superfund) site, and I found ways to start River Watch,” recalled Horn, who is part of a five-person team that oversees the program throughout the state.
Starting with five school groups collecting samples at five sites on the Yampa River in 1989, the program grew to include more than 1,200 sampling sites called stations on 700 rivers across the state. Though all of those stations provided samples at some point, not all are actively being sampled today, due to a shortage of volunteers.
The national nonprofit Earth Force, in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), operates the program. Neither group has the funds to pay hundreds of people to monitor water quality monthly at more than 1,000 sites. CPW uses a mix of federal funds and Colorado Lottery funds to finance the program’s organization, database, heavy metals analysis, shipping cost and other administration.
“Volunteer monitoring produces data that is not free, but cheap,” Horn said.
Besides volunteer time, producing data from the hundreds of water samples each month takes additional time. While volunteers enter pH/alkalinity and hardness monthly numbers every month, data for the heavy metals takes up to six months for professionals to enter into the database.
“There’s a funny disconnect in this world right now: wanting all this accountability and wanting all this clean air and water, but not understanding that it costs money to get it,” she said. “What each taxpayer is paying to have clean water via the Clean Water Act is practically nothing.”
Horn describes the results of River Watch monitoring as baseline data — similar to when a person goes in for a physical at the doctor’s office.
“We are doing the same thing for our rivers and that kind of monitoring takes a lot of time. It’s not glamorous. We’re not putting out fires. We want to know what preexisting conditions are,” she said. “The public believes that somebody is doing that but it’s expensive. The limited budgets that agencies have get used up for those (metaphorical) fires.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment implements the Clean Water Act in Colorado and does water quality monitoring. Due to limited funds, the agency cannot monitor the whole state every year, so they divide the state into four sections that align with major river basins. They have funds to monitor between 40-60 sites annually, 10 or so are monitored every year, the others every five years. When each site is monitored, data is gathered four to six times per year, not monthly.
River Watch data is much more comprehensive and long-term for rivers where the program consistently has volunteers.
“If we sample monthly, think of it as if we are writing a ‘War and Peace’ novel. If the state health department sampled at 40 sites two times a year, while we sample at 600 stations monthly, it’s like they are writing the abridged version of ‘War and Peace’ that you use to cram for the test. But they actually sample each site only twice in five years, which is like ripping a page out of that book and only having that much information,” she explained.
All River Watch data is public information available on its website, as well as on the Colorado Data Sharing Network (coloradowaterdate.org) and National Water Quality Portal (waterqualitydata.us). The data is also delivered to the state Water Quality Control Division annually.
In Ouray County, River Watch data has helped organizations like the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the nonprofit Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) make decisions about which reclamation and water quality improvement projects to pursue. It has also helped them analyze and understand the success of projects.
“Water quality data will become more and more important as climate change worsens,” Horn added.
Besides gathering this significant data, the other primary goal of River Watch is to give people hands-on science experiences, and an understanding of the value and function of Colorado’s river and water ecosystems. That’s why the program originated with teachers volunteering to do the sampling with their classes. Currently, teacher-led groups are estimated to make up approximately 80 percent of the sampling volunteers. The remaining 20 percent are a mix of individuals and adult groups.
Some volunteers have been sampling for the program for up to three decades, while others only last a couple years. Some have one site to sample, but others like Funk have six or more. The time commitment is usually about 15 minutes at each site, plus driving time. Both can take longer during the winter, when snow makes the roads more difficult to navigate and some riversides are only accessible by snowshoes. Sometimes it is even necessary to break through ice to get samples.
It typically takes around 30 minutes to analyze and record the pH/alkalinity and hardness data for each site; the paperwork, computer input and shipping of samples can take an additional 30-plus minutes for each site. A volunteer responsible for one site commits to around two hours a month, while those doing four or six sites pledge six-plus hours. Other annual requirements include a multi-day training, a half-day of demonstrating procedures with Horn, and sampling for habitat and possibly microinvertabrates, plus an extra sample of nutrients quarterly.
“It’s a rigorous program that produces high quality data. Field and lab methods align with the health department’s, so data is comparable. When River Watch goals match a volunteer’s interests, they get really excited about making an impact,” Horn said. “Volunteers are happy to be a cog in this big wheel that delivers data to organizations that can use it to make a difference.”
In Ouray County, Funk was preceded by student volunteers led by a Ouray High School science teacher. The other four sites in Ouray County, all downstream on the Uncompahgre River, started out with volunteers from Ridgway High School. Volunteers from the UWP took over the sites almost a decade ago, including Dudley and Sharon Case, most recently.
The Cases had previously volunteered to sample and test water for 10 years with their Sierra Club group in Illinois. For the past five years, the retired couple could be seen once a month, driving in their Jeep through Ridgway en route to Pa-Co-Chu Puk, north of the Ridgway Reservoir. They methodically stopped at spots along the Uncompahgre River. They found their way through willows, down boulders, under bridges and over mud and snow to get to the river banks — he with a handful of water bottles and she with a clipboard and thermometer.
“I was volunteering with the UWP river cleanups and plantings in Ridgway, and I mentioned to Agnieszka (the former UWP coordinator) that Sharon and I might be interested in River Watch,” said Dudley, who added that curiosity was the driving force behind his volunteering
“I had heard so much about the mines and mining in the San Juans that I was curious to find out how the mining had and was still effecting the Uncompahgre River each year,” he explained. “I am hoping that future generations will be able to use the data I have collected over my five years of doing it to help eventually clean up the mines and thus the river. I might have volunteered longer if we hadn’t decided to move away.”
UWP is currently looking for volunteers to take over the four sites that are no longer sampled by the Cases. For more information, visit coloradoriverwatch.org. If you’re interested in volunteering in Ouray, Montrose or San Miguel counties, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Tanya Ishikawa is a public relations professional for the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership.
Now, fears and frustration over water quality and contamination have become a potent election-year issue, burbling up in races from the fissured bedrock here in Wisconsin to chemical-tainted wells in New Hampshire to dwindling water reserves in Arizona. President Trump’s actions to loosen clean water rules have intensified a battle over regulations and environmental protections unfolding on the most intensely local level: in people’s own kitchen faucets.
In Wisconsin and other Midwestern states where Republicans run the government, environmental groups say that politicians have cut budgets for environmental enforcement and inspections and weakened pollution rules. In Iowa, for example, the Republican-led Legislature dismissed a package of bills that would have blocked any new large-scale hog operations until the state cleaned up its nitrogen-laden rivers and streams.
There are no precise water-quality surveys of the galaxy of private wells that serve 43 million people in the United States, but sampling by the United States Geological Survey has found contamination in about one of every five wells.
Few water-quality rules regulate those wells, meaning there is no water company to call, no backup system to turn to, and often no simple way to cure the contamination. In Flint, lead-tainted water prompted a public health emergency that led to a criminal investigation.
Homeowners say they are forced to choose between installing expensive filtration systems, spending thousands to dig deeper wells, ignoring the problem or moving.
Click here to read the newsletter from Water Education Colorado. Here’s an excerpt:
Dozens of public water systems on state watch list for lead contamination (Jerd Smith)
Forty small communities, school districts and day care centers serving 51,000 people statewide are being monitored by state health officials because of concerns about potential lead contamination.
It does not mean that these entities are violating rules governing lead contamination, only that small amounts of lead have been detected in their water samples at some point, according to Nicole Graziano, a water quality specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Once that occurs, under state and federal guidelines, water suppliers must embark on a rigorous sampling program that sometimes requires new water treatment and replacement of lead service lines.
“If they’re on our list, it means they are active in our process, “ Graziano said. The rule has a long timeline, meaning that water providers can remain on the list for years as the problem is monitored, treated, and then monitored again to ensure treatment is working.
The CDPHE regulates some 2,000 public water systems statewide. Roughly 1,000 of these are subject to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), Graziano said.
Concern over the issue has risen dramatically since 2015, when Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, pushing millions of gallons of highly corrosive water through aging lead pipes, leading to a wave of contamination and a public health crisis.
Under the LCR, more than 90 percent of samples must show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher in order to trigger an action order. During the Flint crisis, lead levels of 27 ppb were found, with one sample registering 158 ppb, according to published reports.
These numbers are concerning, according to public health officials, because lead isn’t considered safe at any level, particularly for children, and levels as low as 5 ppb can be dangerous. Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Often these metals aren’t found in water once it leaves a treatment plant. But they can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through copper pipes as well as lead service lines in older homes and schools. To learn more about protecting your home or office from lead contamination here.
By far the largest entity on Colorado’s watch list is Denver Water. The utility serves some 1.4 million customers in metro Denver and has been required to sample water from its customers’ taps, conduct extensive public education efforts on protecting against lead contamination, and change out thousands of lead service lines, which are major contributors to the problem.
Earlier this year Denver Water, along with Aurora Water, the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District and the Denver Greenway Foundation, sued the state health department over a new requirement that it add phosphorous to its water treatment processes to reduce the potential for lead contamination. Denver Water has asked the state to use a PH-based protocol instead. Talks to settle the lawsuit are underway now.
Dozens of small communities are confronting the same problem, often with limited resources and big fears that a new, likely tougher, set of federal lead regulations is coming in response to the crisis in Flint. A draft set of these new rules is set to come out early next year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the CDPHE, the systems on its watch list serve more than 51,000 Coloradans.
Among them is the scenic Idaho Springs, population 1,746. Lead showed up in its tap water more than a decade ago, according to Dan Wolf, manager of the town’s water and wastewater system.
Since being directed by the state in 2008 to boost the PH levels in its water treatment system, lead and copper levels in routinely collected samples of its tap water have been negligible, according to state records.
But the higher PH levels are causing problems with other aspects of the system, Wolf said. Increasing the PH, for instance, has created an organic reaction with the chlorine used for disinfection, resulting in a set of carcinogenic byproducts known as haloacetic acids (HAAs).
“Lead is not a significant issue for us anymore,” Wolf said. “But treating for lead and copper is causing higher levels of disinfection byproducts.”
In response, Idaho Springs has asked the state to allow it to operate at a lower PH level, a request the state hasn’t ruled on yet, Wolf said.
Two other entities on the list, Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine and Bearly Tawl Day Care Center in Evergreen, have shown elevated levels of lead at some locations in their buildings in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and both are being closely watched. Subsequent tests at both facilities have shown lead levels well below the action targets, according to state records.
Bearly Tawl did not return a call seeking comment. But Jefferson County Schools’ spokeswoman Diana Wilson said the school district has moved quickly to replace faucets and drinking fountains at Elk Creek and other schools to reduce lead levels and that all of its schools are now on a rotating sample schedule so that any elevated lead levels can be identified and addressed.
Like hundreds of other school districts across the state and the nation, Jefferson County opted to use state grant money to test for lead.
“We were concerned about the age of our buildings,” said Diana Wilson, executive director of communications at Jefferson County Public Schools. “Most of them are more than 50 years old.”
In general, 50 years ago is when lead piping was outlawed, due to health concerns. Buildings constructed since then aren’t likely to have lead pipes, although some may contain copper pipe fittings.
As drinking water concerns continue to echo across the state, some communities have opted to move forward and replace all lead service lines even though they are not on the watch list. Two years ago, the town of Paonia in Delta County, which relies on underground springs for its water, saw its water source reclassified under a new set of regulations designed to address concerns over groundwater contamination.
The new classification meant it had to redo a significant portion of its water system, using bonds and grants. As part of that $4 million redo, it opted to go ahead and replace all of its lead service lines, according to Paonia Town Administrator Ken Knight.
“In a lot of small communities, their infrastructure is at the end of its life expectancy. But the fact of the matter for us is that we are going to be in very good shape.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Denver Water and three other organizations are seeking to overturn a state order that directs Denver to adopt a strict new treatment protocol preventing lead contamination in drinking water.
Denver is not in violation of the federal law that governs lead, but it has been required to monitor and test its system regularly since 2012 after lead was discovered in a small sample of water at some of its customers’ taps.
In March of this year, after Denver completed a series of required tests and studies, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) ordered the utility to implement a treatment protocol that involves adding phosphates to its system. It has until March of 2020 to implement the new process.
Denver, which serves 1.4 million people in the metro area, has proposed instead using an approach that balances the PH levels in its treated water and expands a program replacing lead service lines in the city. Old lead service lines are a common source of lead in drinking water.
Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. In Denver, for instance, there is no lead in the water supply when it leaves the treatment plant. But it can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through lead delivery lines and pipes in older homes. Denver has 58,000 lead service lines in its system. Lead has continued to appear in samples it has taken at some customers’ taps, according to court filings, though not at levels that would constitute a violation of the federal law.
Eighty-six samples taken since 2013 have exceeded 15 micrograms per liter, including one tap sample which measured more than 400 micrograms per liter, according to court filings. The 15-microgram-per-liter benchmark is the level at which utilities must take action, including public education, corrosion studies, additional sampling and possible removal of lead service lines.
In response to the state’s order, the City of Aurora, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District and the nonprofit Greenway Foundation, which works to protect the South Platte River, sued to overturn it, concerned that additional phosphates will hamper their ability to meet their own water treatment requirements while also hurting water quality in the South Platte. Denver joined the suit in May.
Because Denver Water services numerous other water providers in the metro area and participates in a major South Metro reuse project known as WISE, short for Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, anything that changes the chemical profile of its water affects dozens of communities and the river itself.
Among the plaintiffs’ concerns is that phosphate levels in water that is discharged to the river have to be tightly controlled under provisions of the Clean Water Act. If phosphate levels in domestic water rise, wastewater treatment protocols would have to be changed, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Water Research Foundation.
From an environmental perspective, any increased phosphate in the South Platte River would make fighting such things as algae blooms, which are fueled by nutrients including phosphorous, much more difficult and could make the river less habitable for fish.
But in its statement to the court, the CDPHE said the state’s first job is to protect the health of the thousands of children served by Denver Water in the metro area.
“The addition of orthophosphate will reduce lead at consumers’ taps by approximately 74 percent, as opposed to the cheaper treatment favored by plaintiffs [PH/Alkalinity], which will only reduce levels by less than 50 percent,” CDPHE said in court documents. “This is a significant and important public health difference, particularly because there is no safe level of lead in blood…Even at low levels, a child’s exposure to lead can be harmful.”
How much either treatment may eventually cost Denver Water and others isn’t clear yet, according to state health officials, because it will depend in part on how each process is implemented.
Denver, Aurora and Metro Wastewater declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.
The Greenway Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
In late July, all parties agreed to pause the legal proceedings while they examine water treatment issues as well as the environmental concerns raised by higher levels of phosphorous in Denver Water’s treated water supplies. If a settlement can’t be reached by Nov. 1, the lawsuit will proceed.
Jonathan Cuppett, a research manager at the Water Research Foundation, said other utilities across the country may be asked to re-evaluate their own corrosion control systems under a rewrite of the Lead and Copper Rule underway now at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The newly proposed federal rule is due out for review later this year or by mid-2019.
Cuppett said the changes may lean toward more phosphate-based treatment for lead contamination. In fact, the EPA issued a statement in March in support of the CDPHE’s order to Denver Water.
“Within the [Lead and Copper Rule] there are a variety of changes that may be made. Depending on what those changes are other utilities may have to evaluate their strategy again or more frequently. And if that is the case, we may see more of this issue where someone is pushing for phosphorous for control for public health, creating a conflict of interest with environmental concerns,” Cuppett said.
Colorado public health officials said they’re hopeful an agreement can be reached, but that they have few options under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act’s Lead and Copper Rule.
“The [Lead and Copper Rule] is a very prescriptive, strict rule,” said Megan Parish, an attorney and policy adviser to CDPHE. “It doesn’t give us a lot of discretion to consider things that Metro Wastewater would have liked us to consider.”
A news release about the contamination was distributed on Friday morning. This comes after the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District found perfluorinated compounds (commonly known as PFCs) in water samples from certain shallow groundwater wells. These chemicals are known to pose significant health risks if people are exposed to them – especially expectant mothers and young children.
Now, the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, and the Tri-County Health Department are working to find the source of the contamination.
However, health officials say the water distributed to the 50,000 customers in the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District is safe after three wells with the highest concentration of the PFC chemicals were shut down earlier this month. This means the district is taking 40 percent of its water supply from Denver rather than the usual 20 percent.
The concern now, according to South Adams County Water and Sanitation District Water Systems Manager Kipp Scott, are private wells and the people who use them – which is what prompted the advisory to the public in the first place.
“When we find something that is of a concern like this, we notify the health department,” Scott said. “The concern is, we are treating for that chemical here and removing it to levels below the health advisory, but the concern is with other people that maybe using wells that are not on our system and supplied water by our district.
Scott said some wells tested positive for PFCs in May. When that happened, they tested the treatment process – and results took five weeks to come back. Next came contact with the health department.
Brian Hlavacek, the director of environmental health at the Tri-County Health Department, issued a statement to 9NEWS that said:
“Tri-County Health Department is working closely with EPA, CDPHE and SACWSD to identify the extent and source of contamination. TCHD is working to identify private drinking water wells in the initial area of investigation in order to sample for PFC’s. Sampling could begin as early as next week as we identify any wells. Residents who receive their water from a private drinking water well, are near this area, and are concerned about PFC levels can call Tri-County Health Department at 303-288-6816 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
After 27 years of EPA control, Colorado is preparing to take over the full financial burden — a forever bill for $2 million a year — of a high-mountain cyanide gold mine that became one of the West’s worst environmental disasters.
The re-shaping of ravaged alpine tundra at the Summitville Mine through a $250 million federal Superfund cleanup stands out because scores of other toxic mines in Colorado still are contaminating headwaters of western rivers each day.
But this fix requires constant work. Colorado must pay the $2 million, a bill that the EPA has been handling, starting in 2021 for cleaning a fluctuating flow of up to 2,100 gallons a minute of toxic water that drains down a once-pristine mountainside.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will use the money to run a silver-domed $18 million industrial water treatment plant built at 11,500 feet elevation in a wild and spectacular valley, surrounded by snow-splotched jagged peaks.
The plant houses huge stainless-steel vats of burbling brown sludge. Toxic metals are chemically coaxed and filtered out. Plant operators haul 4.1 million pounds a year of concentrated waste back up South Mountain (elevation 12,550 feet) in trucks for burial. This muck contains more than 690,000 pounds of cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, iron, manganese and zinc. It is toxic metal that otherwise would flow down and degrade the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River.
Colorado also must oversee the artificial covering and drainage ditches across 1,100 acres of tundra scarred by open-pit mining. Mountainsides ripped and slashed to remove gold and silver have been re-contoured by contractors using bulldozers, and re-planted with native vegetation — the engineering equivalent of plastic surgery to make the place look as good as possible…
The hand-off of responsibility for Summitville from the EPA to CDPHE in 2021 will mark a turning point in dealing with a severely damaged landscape using the nation’s Superfund system for handling disasters.
This project was set in motion before Congress in 1995 killed automatic funding for Superfund cleanups.
Complete restoration to a pre-existent state is considered impossible and the government aimed at best-possible repairs.
“That was what the EPA and the state worked to do: bring it back to a sustainable protected state. Once there is mining in an area, it has long-term impact,” said Fran Costanzi, an EPA official who managed the Summitville cleanup for four years. “We worked to bring water quality back and also the vegetation into a long-term stable state.”
An EPA spokesman issued a statement placing Summitville “among the more illustrious, or perhaps infamous, examples of the environmental damage a large mining operation can cause when resources for safely managing contamination sources disappear. The EPA’s initial response was an emergency situation in which the site was literally abandoned by the operator — in winter-time conditions — with a cyanide heap leach pad eroding into a headwaters stream.
“After years of work and investment, we’ve essentially reclaimed a watershed in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Protecting those gains will continue to require our attention.”
The cleanup improved water quality to where fish can live in Terrace Reservoir, about five miles below the mine, and in the Alamosa River.
CDPHE officials now are required to monitor conditions.
The financial burden falls to Colorado because the Superfund process shifts responsibility to states after initial federal remediation. Colorado lawmakers have arranged to pay about $2 million a year by tapping revenue derived from fees paid at municipal and other landfills around the state…
At Summitville, Rio Grande County eventually will own the 1,100-acre site. State and county officials have been setting up placards conveying the history of mining in the area with an emphasis on environmental damage and evolving efforts to repair harm.
For 150 years, the North Clear Creek in Black Hawk, Colorado has been contaminated from historic mining. A new water treatment plant that came online in 2017 is removing 350lbs of heavy metals every day from the stream with the hopes of reestablishing a brown trout population. The facility uses Tuthill’s Blower Packages to aerate the water to remove the heavy metals more easily. Learn more about Tuthill’s products here: https://www.tuthillvacuumblower.com/i…
The facility was built and run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Colorado Department of Transportation was integral to this project.
The Western Sugar Cooperative has been fined $2 million as part of a settlement of air, water and solid waste violations and non-compliance found at the company’s Fort Morgan, Colo. plant.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced a settlement between the department and Western Sugar in a release Friday.
Violations of Colorado’s Colorado’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Act included exceeding the state’s regulatory odor limits. Water quality violations include discharges of pollutants, including fecal coliform and sulfide, which significantly exceeded the company’s permit limits. The department also cited Western Sugar for unauthorized spills, and said water quality violations likely contributed to odor issues affecting Fort Morgan residents.
In addition to air and water quality violations, CDPHE says Western Sugar operated two large waste stockpiles of coal ash and precipitated in violation of state solid waste regulations. The piles of the manufacturing by-products are visible from Interstate 76 and Route 52…
Under the terms of the settlement, Western Sugar agreed to:
– Identify and implement wastewater treatment.
– Eliminate and/or properly dispose of waste stockpiles and any new waste generated through its processes.
– Investigate groundwater and soil impacts, and implement corrective measures if necessary.
– Implement and comply with an odor management plan.
– Retrofit existing coal-fired boilers with natural gas burners.
– Establish financial assurance.
– Provide funding for a local water quality restoration project.
– Accept suspension of its environmental permits or licenses if it fails to comply with certain terms of the settlement.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (Meghan Trubee):
This year, seven entities across the state will receive more than $575,000 in grant funds for projects aimed to improve water quality. Projects must be focused in one of three areas: stormwater management training, projects that improve water quality where there’s been a violation, and the planning and/or construction of stormwater or wastewater improvement projects. Government agencies, publicly owned and nonprofit water systems, watershed groups, stormwater program administrators, training providers, and private landowners were eligible to apply.
The grants are an important assistance tool for communities working to improve water quality in their area. Small and economically challenged communities are given priority for the funds.
Funds for these projects come from penalties collected for water quality violations (Section 25-8-608, C.R.S., of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act and HB 11-1026). This list is subject to change based on contract negotiations.
“We’re still the only state that has such rigorous regulations. Some half-cocked official in Washington might decide they want to make an example of that and say it’s too much regulation,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve worked hard to go through all the regulations to get rid of all the deadwood, the red tape, the bureaucracy and have lean, efficient regulation that actually helps businesses to succeed.
“I don’t want the federal government to come in and tell us what we created between business and the nonprofit communities isn’t good anymore because it doesn’t fit their political paradigm.”
He said states no longer can wait on the federal government for help, especially as the county grows economically and in population.
“I’m not sure the federal government is going to be much of a partner as we look at solving all the problems of our growth,” he said. “We’re going to have to solve them ourselves.”
From now until the next governor is inaugurated on Jan. 8, 2019, Hickenlooper said his administration will work to be a leader on the state level. After that, he just wants to be useful.
“There is a wonderful poem by a woman named Marge Piercy called ‘To Be of Use.’ I’m going to look for a good way to be of use,” he said of life outside the governor’s office. “I’ve got another year or 370 days or something like that. We’re going to finish strong. We’re going to push on the places where we think Colorado should be a national model.
Chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout
Colorado health officials on Wednesday ignored state scientists and delayed for two years a decision on a mining giant’s push to weaken statewide limits on molybdenum pollution of streams, including a creek flowing into Dillon Reservoir, Denver’s drinking water supply.
Denver Water contends that Climax Molybdenum’s campaign to jack up molybdenum pollution limits 43 times higher than at present could cost ratepayers up to $600 million for expansion of a water treatment plant. Trace amounts of molybdenum — below a health advisory level — already flow out of Denver taps.
But Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials on Wednesday rescheduled a Dec. 12 molybdenum rule hearing for November 2019.
A CDPHE hearing officer said the delay will allow time for industry-financed studies to move through a peer-review process and for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to make decisions on molybdenum toxicity. A “temporary modification” that currently allows elevated molybdenum pollution from the Climax Mine was extended this year through 2018, and CDPHE officials at Wednesday’s meeting opened the possibility it could be extended again.
CDPHE scientists opposed the delay. The scientists, Denver Water and a coalition of mountain towns have opposed the push by Climax to allow more molybdenum pollution of Tenmile Creek, which flows down from the Climax Mine above Leadville into Dillon Reservoir, where water flows out through a tunnel to Denver and the upper Colorado River Basin. CDPHE water-quality scientists have determined that molybdenum pollution at the proposed new limits would kill fish and could hurt people…
Denver Water treatment plants cannot remove molybdenum, and expanding one plant to do that would cost from $480 million to $600 million, utility officials said in documents filed to the CDPHE.
Those costs ultimately would hit ratepayers, the 1.4 million people who rely on Denver Water for their domestic water supply. The molybdenum pollution from Tenmile Creek that reaches Denver facilities today is “below the human health advisory levels,” Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said.
“We’d likely exceed the human health advisory standard if that (new limit) were to become the statewide water quality standard. … Currently, the concentrations in Tenmile Creek have not been at a high enough concentration that would result in an exceedance of the human health advisory level, so an extension of the ‘temporary modification’ for molybdenum is acceptable,” Chesney said.
A subsidiary of the $46 billion mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, Climax Molybdenum runs the Climax Mine, which was closed for 25 years and reopened in 2012. This led to elevated molybdenum pollution at levels up to 2,500 ppb, 10 times higher than the current statewide limit. The “temporary modification” granted by CDPHE water commissioners, and extended this year, allows this elevated pollution through December 2018…
EPA officials recently said a molybdenum pollution limit as high as 10,000 ppb could be sufficient. But EPA scientists previously have advised lower limits.
“Denver Water’s current position is that the molybdenum limit should be based on scientific evidence. While Climax Molybdenum Company has presented scientific studies in support of its proposed standard, the studies fail to account for the effect high molybdenum concentrations will have on individuals with a copper deficiency,” Chesney said. “Because we do not know how high molybdenum concentrations will affect people with copper deficiencies, and EPA has not modified the Human Health Advisory for molybdenum to correspond with Climax’s proposed standard, the (state water quality control) commission should decline to increase the molybdenum standard to the level proposed by Climax.”
A coalition of mountain towns also is fighting the proposed higher limits for molybdenum pollution of waterways.
“Because of scientific uncertainty regarding the effects of varying molybdenum concentrations on human health, the commission should decline to make the changes that Climax Molybdenum Company has proposed in the statewide molybdenum standards,” Frisco attorney Jennifer DiLalla said. “The town’s primary goal is ensuring that any action the commission may take with respect to molydenum standards is protective of the health of those who live and work and play in Frisco.”
CDPHE scientists warn Climax Mine molybdenum may pose health risk, oppose company push to raise statewide pollution limit
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water-quality scientists said, in a recommendation to state commissioners, that Climax Molybdenum’s proposed hike “would be acutely lethal to aquatic life” and probably not protective of people.
A Climax report on molybdenum exposures in Colorado “demonstrates that current levels of molybdenum in drinking water may pose a public health risk to communities downstream” of the mine, CDPHE scientists said in filings reviewed by The Denver Post.
State data show molybdenum discharges from the Climax Mine above Leadville in recent years increased to levels 10 times higher than the current statewide limit of 210 parts per billion. CDPHE water-quality control commissioners granted Climax a “temporary modification.” When it expired, the commissioners extended the modification to provide more time to complete a study of molybdenum.
CDPHE officials Tuesday declined to discuss this issue.
Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials, who oversee Colorado’s compliance with the Clean Water Act, informed state commissioners last week that the EPA would allow a limit higher than what Climax Molybdenum is proposing, according to a document filed Friday.
A regional EPA spokesman issued a prepared statement saying the EPA’s filing is “preliminary,” confirming that “our initial review indicates that the proposed standard would protect water supply uses,” but declined to further discuss this issue
State commissioners often follow EPA guidance in setting pollution limits sufficient to protect people while accounting for variability and uncertainty…
Climax officials cited three rat studies the company helped fund in asking CDPHE to relax the statewide water quality limit for molybdenum in streams used for domestic water to 9,000 ppb billion from 210 ppb. Climax also wants limits for waterways used for agricultural irrigation raised to 1,000 ppb from 160 ppb.
EPA recommendations submitted to the CDPHE said a molybdenum limit for streams tapped for drinking water of 10,000 ppb “would be protective … and consistent with Clean Water Act requirements.” However, EPA regional officials said in the document filed Friday that they would not object if Colorado’s commission “chooses to be more conservative and adopts a more stringent table value standard of 9,000 ug/L (ppb) as proposed by Climax Molybdenum Company.”
The EPA “must review and act upon any revised standards once they are adopted by the commission for them to be in effect under the Clean Water Act,” the agency’s statement said. “If the commission chooses to retain current standards, EPA will not have an approval or disapproval role.”
The CDPHE scientists submitted their recommendation Friday to state commissioners, who are scheduled to deal with the matter in December.
Denver Water is opposing the push for a looser statewide limit, along with downstream communities including Frisco, the Copper Mountain resort and people to the west along the Eagle River…
Denver Water treatment plants lack the capacity to remove molybdenum, which in trace amounts can be healthy. While data on human toxicity is limited, chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout, and can also affect the lungs, kidneys and liver.
Climax officials have told state water quality commissioners their proposal “is not based on any intent or need to increase molybdenum in Climax discharges, and, in particular, Climax does not intend to change its mining or water treatment process in a manner that would cause an increase in the historical discharge of molybdenum into Tenmile Creek.”
Ouray Silver Mines wants to reopen a mine that produces silver, gold, lead and copper and would bring 152 jobs to Ouray County, along with, its proponents say, a 10 to 20 percent boost to the county’s tax base.
But that mine is on hold, due to issues with water quality at a nearby creek tied to the mine that the mine owners say they have worked on for 18 months without any concerns raised by CDPHE until now.
Sneffels Creek, the surface water source near the mine, is about halfway between Ouray and Telluride, as the crow flies. The creek has a long history with mining, going back 140 years.
The mine dates back to 1876 and ran until its mill burned down in 1912. During its early operations, the mine produced 25 million ounces of silver.
Sneffels Creek joins up with another creek and then into Canyon Creek downstream, and then into the Uncompahgre River. Briana Greer, an environmental consultant with Ouray Silver Mines, said when the water originating in Sneffels Creek reaches the Uncompahgre, water quality in that river improves by 50 percent. It’s better water quality than area drinking water, she told the committee.
The idea of starting the mine back up for its silver, gold, zinc and copper began in the 1980s. The mine passed through numerous hands until 2014, when Fortune Minerals of Canada bought it hoping to mine its silver veins. But the company couldn’t sustain production and defaulted on its loans. The chief investor, Lascaux Resource Capital of New York, took over the mine and renamed it Ouray Silver Mines.
Mine CEO Brian Briggs told the General Assembly’s interim Water Resources Review Committee Wednesday that the company has invested $70.5 million to get the mine up and running, and it will take another $36 million to get up to full production. The payoff? Fourteen million ounces of silver, which costs $7.89 per ounce to mine and can bring in about $17 per ounce on the market. The mine also has rich veins of gold, lead and zinc, and the company expects a net a profit of around $76 million, along with 152 well-paying jobs for experienced miners, according to Briggs.
A fifth-generation Ouray native, Briggs has several decades experience in mining, called Ouray “a very, very good mine, the best I’ve every worked on for economic results.”
Ouray County could benefit more than just how the mine will improve its tax base. Briggs explained that Ouray has no gravel pits or other sources for road base. So mine tailings and waste rock, which metallurgical tests show are “benign,” are ground up by the company and provided to the county for road base.
Starting up an old mine has not been without its problems. According to a chart from the company, lead, zinc and cadmium discharges briefly exceeded state standards in 2014, leading to a violation notice last year from CDPHE. Lead discharges exceeded the standards again this past summer due to the failure of a lining in a mine tunnel that is being replaced.
Then there’s the water quality issue, and that’s delaying the mine’s startup.
The mine’s previous owner had a permit to discharge water to Sneffels Creek. The new owners set up a passive water system that could discharge either to surface or to groundwater (underground) water sources.
Briggs explained to the committee that the passive system is not only one for today’s mining but for 50 or 60 years from now. Briggs said the system, which has been piloted in Wyoming, for example, should prevent the kinds of problems that happened at the old Gold King Mine near Durango two years ago, when contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released more than a million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.
In the mine’s passive system, used mining water is passed through a clay liner that contains fabric with peat moss to absorb metals and then a layer of topsoil. “It makes a tremendous impact on the three metals we’re concerned about: cadmium, lead and zinc,” Briggs said.
The hangup has been just who’s in charge of making sure the system is in compliance at the CDPHE. Briggs said the mine had provided quarterly updates, explaining the passive system, to CDPHE’s enforcement division. In November 2016, the mine owners applied for a termination of its surface water discharge permit, believing it was no longer necessary since the passive system was discharging its water into underground water sources.
In July, CDPHE denied the request, stating the surface water interacts with groundwater sources. “We can’t confirm” whether that’s true, Briggs said.
That left the owners in a pickle – tear up the previous system? Install a new one? “If they want us to discharge into surface water we’ll do that,” Briggs said. But he also appeared to be frustrated that after 18 months of telling CDPHE what they were doing that the agency came back and said that system doesn’t work.
Installing another system will take another year, Briggs said.
The story from CDPHE is a tad different. In a September 3 letter to Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, CDPHE’s Karin McGowan said the mine had an active permit for a surface water discharge. “They are not waiting for a new permit, but may be frustrated because they have not been able to successfully modify their permit because they have not provided the necessary information needed to execute a modification. We are currently working with them to get the necessary information needed,” McGowan wrote.
McGowan further added that the mine changed its manner of discharge, from surface to groundwater, without notifying the division.
The September, 2016 notice of violation was for discharging to a new location without a permit, effluent violations, and administrative violations, McGowan pointed out. “The facility has consistently failed whole effluent toxicity testing permit requirements,” she wrote. The 2016 notice pertains to a 2014 discharge, when the mine was owned by Fortune Minerals, in which water contaminated with lead, cadmium and zinc was dumped at a rate of 400 gallons per minute into Sneffels Creek for about 18 hours.
Briggs told the committee CDPHE has never even visited the site, despite numerous requests by the mine owners…
In a statement, CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley told Colorado Politics that most enforcement is completed through evaluations of self-reported data. “Resource limitations makes it impossible to visit every site on an annual basis and hence permittees are put on a schedule for inspection,” he said.
FromThe Colorado Springs Gazette (J. Adrian Stanley ):
The budget proposal assumes the stormwater fee measure on the Nov. 7 ballot will not pass, but Suthers is prepared to submit an amendment to City Council if it does.
A big chunk of the anticipated increase in revenue is from sales tax collection increases. At times, the city has needed to refund sales tax collections that grew quickly, due to revenue growth limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. But this year, and in 2018, the city will be able to keep $6 million per year in revenue overage thanks to a measure approved by voters in April. That money is dedicated to stormwater projects. (The city is aggressively dealing with drainage issues, in part, because it’s being sued by the federal government for violation of the Clean Water Act.)
Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who is presiding over the lawsuit, stated Thursday that pre-trial preparation will continue until April. Matsch, in a written order, said he will set a trial date after that.
In pre-trial work so far, Colorado Springs has turned over 1,275 boxes of documents to the EPA and the state environment department to examine for possible evidence. That is part of the legal process known as “discovery.”
Matsch earlier this year granted requests from the Board of Pueblo County Commissioners and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District to intervene in the case, on the side of the environmental agencies. Intervention allows the commissioners and the conservancy district to have a direct voice in the litigation in order to protect their interests.
The district encompasses Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties, where considerable produce is grown. District officials told Matsch they want to ensure the quality of the river water.
Colorado Springs has denied it is violating the laws. Mayor John Suthers has pointed to its commitment of money and manpower to improve its stormwater system.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement and enforce” its storm management program, as required by permits issued by the environmental agencies.
Less than 30 percent of Colorado’s estimated 95,000 miles of streams are likely to qualify for protection if the current system is changed as proposed, according to a 2009 study by the conservation group Trout Unlimited. EPA data show that 77,850 miles of waterways in Colorado are ephemeral, only flowing seasonally or during rain.
Federal environmental officials must protect “waters of the United States” under the nation’s landmark 1972 Clean Water Act — by requiring property owners to obtain permits designed to minimize impact before water can be polluted or wetlands destroyed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers administers these permits, typically requiring six months or more for processing — a source of frustration for some.
Trump’s team has proposed to repeal a broader definition of “waters of the United States” that the EPA and Army Corps adopted in 2015 under President Barack Obama — one that expanded protection following U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that created confusion. The court ruled that federal authorities could only require permits for pollution and dredging of “navigable waters.” The Obama-era approach, still not implemented due to lawsuits, allows regulation of flowing water, including ephemeral streams, with exemptions for agriculture.
Publication in the federal register on June 27 of the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal and replace clean water standards triggered a 30-day period for public comment. Then the rollback would take effect. However, more than 70 members of Congress last week requested an extension to no less than six months. On Thursday, the League of Conservation Voters and 18 other environment groups sent Pruitt a letter requesting the same.
While Colorado has state-level rules limiting water pollution that still could apply, there is no state rule against dredging and filling that destroys wetlands and streams.
Beer brewers were among the first to object. Eight craft brewers in Colorado, joined by counterparts nationwide, sent a letter to EPA and Army Corps leaders urging maximum protection.
“Beer is mostly water, so the quality of our source water affects our finished product. Even small chemical disruptions in our water supply can alter the taste of a brew or influence factors like shelf life and foam pattern,” they wrote. “We need reliable sources of clean water to consistently produce the great beer that is key to our success.”
In western Colorado, a growing reliance on pristine water for the economy — depending more on recreation and tourism — compelled concern. The fuzzy meaning of “waters of the United States” and delays issuing federal permits are a problem, many agree, and local officials would welcome greater clarity, said Torie Jarvis, co-director of the Water Quantity and Quality Committee (QQ) of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. But most favor greater protection, not less.
“While QQ supports increased clarity for the definition of ‘waters of the United States,’ this clarity should not mean reduced water quality protection under the Clean Water Act,” Jarvis and the other local leaders told EPA officials June 19, after the feds had asked for input for their proposed repeal and overhaul of clean water rules.
“Water quality in the headwaters of Colorado is critically important for our regional tourism economy as much as for environmental protection. Tourism is the largest employment sector in the headwaters region, comprising 48 percent of all jobs,” local officials wrote. “Tourism in the region includes fishing, hunting, kayaking, rafting, wading, lake and reservoir recreation, wildlife watching, hiking, and snowmaking for ski resorts, all of which depend on clean water.”
Some local officials reckon they could protect cherished watersheds on their own, without robust federal clean water rules, by using their power to regulate land use.
Environment groups last week argued that a federal role is necessary to buttress local power.
“Local governments may be able to control some impacts based on conditions they might impose on developments, but they do not have a statutory obligation to do so — so the ability to protect these important resources ends up relying on their level of commitment to protecting water quality, and their ability to have the expertise and resources to do so, which for smaller local governments can be a real limitation,” Colorado Trout Unlimited director David Nickum said.
“Our main practical concern with the change in these federal standards is that we would lose the protection for seasonal streams and for wetlands from being dredged or filled in — protection that currently is provided. … Allowing those areas to be degraded will in turn have ripple effects downstream onto our drinking water supplies and our important fishing and recreation rivers,” Nickum said.
“Colorado’s outdoor economy and quality of life depend on healthy, clean watersheds, and anglers know that starts at the source: the small, unassuming streams, headwaters and wetlands that rescinding the Clean Water Rule puts at risk,” he said.
“President Trump promised to drain the swamp. Instead, this EPA proposal aims to drain our wetlands and pollute our streams,” he said. “Coloradans deserve better.”
The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best
Eagle River Basin
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Jennifer Chergo):
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) today released two Proposed Plans for environmental remediation at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. Both Proposed Plans focus on further reducing heavy metal contamination created by nearly one hundred years of mining activity at the site.
“The cleanup proposals represent both EPA and CDPHE’s commitment to protect human health and the environment at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site,” said Acting Regional Administrator Deb Thomas. “These plans also highlight EPA’s commitment to bringing contaminated lands back to health and reuse.”
The Eagle Mine Superfund Site is located in Eagle County, Colorado. The site is defined as the area impacted by past mining activity along and including the Eagle River between the towns of Red Cliff and Minturn. Mining activities at the Eagle Mine began in 1879 and continued until 1984. EPA listed the site on the National Priorities List (NPL), commonly known as the list of Superfund Sites, in 1986 because of the mine metals discharge, uncontrolled mine waste piles and the close proximity of the population to the mine and associated features. To better manage the site, EPA divided it into operable units (OUs). OU1 focuses on protecting surface water by reducing metals loading from the site to the Eagle River. OU2 focuses on potential human health risks from contaminated soils in the abandoned company town of Gilman. OU3 focuses on soil remediation necessary to protect human health due to planned future development by the current landowner.
EPA issued a final Record of Decision (ROD) for OU1 in 1993 and a final ROD for OU2 in 1998. Over the years, all required environmental cleanup work has occurred at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site under a number of state and federal directives. Response actions at the site addressed the major sources of metals contamination to the Eagle River, including the old and new tailings pile, rex flats and various roaster waste piles near Belden. In 2001, EPA declared all cleanup construction activities complete at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site, except for ongoing operation and maintenance of remedial features like the water treatment plant. Remediation conducted to-date resulted in significant improvement in water quality and reduction in risk to human health and the environment. Continued operation of the existing remedy, including drawdown from the mine pool and treatment at the water treatment plant, is required to maintain this condition. Contaminant concentrations in surface water and groundwater have decreased, and the aquatic ecosystem continues to show signs of recovery.
In 2009, water quality standards established by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission specifically for the Eagle Mine site became effective. Water quality monitoring in the Eagle River revealed that the water quality standards for cadmium, copper and zinc are not attained in March and April of most years. In response, the Proposed Plan released today for OU1 describes a number of alternatives designed to further reduce metals loading to the Eagle River. The preferred OU1 alternative includes the collection and treatment of groundwater from Belden and at the mouth of Rock Creek.
The Proposed Plan for OU3 presents cleanup alternatives focusing on soil remediation necessary to protect human health should future development occur. EPA created OU3, after a developer purchased a large portion of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site in 2004 with plans to develop the property into a private, residential community. The preferred alternative includes a combination of the following elements for areas at OU3 proposed for development: placing a soil exposure barrier; grading the site; placing institutional controls and conducting monitoring; and/or demolishing structures.
“Pueblo County has not been notified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Environmental Protection Agency or the Air Force that they have stopped monitoring, testing or sampling groundwater to track the plume,” county commissioner Terry Hart said. “If they have indeed stopped, we would most definitely be interested in learning why they stopped.
“Pueblo County is concerned about any and all groundwater contaminants. We are working aggressively to ensure that any waterway, but particularly Fountain Creek, is clean so they can be assets to our community instead of being a problem.”
State tests for PFCs in drinking water have not been done since November 2016, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records show. And CDPHE hasn’t measured PFCs in groundwater since February, the records show.
It’s unclear how far the PFCs contamination has moved in groundwater. Back in April 2016, groundwater samples taken south of Fountain, along Hanover Road north of Pueblo, showed PFC contamination higher than 100 parts per trillion — well above the federal EPA health advisory limit of 70 ppt.
CDPHE officials on Thursday confirmed they stopped sampling water and told The Denver Post that’s because EPA funding that enabled the tests ran out. They could not say whether the agency is still monitoring other contaminated groundwater plumes, such as those spreading PCE from dry cleaning.
“The Water Quality Control Division is not conducting any further PFC sampling. We expended the funds from the EPA to complete sampling,” CDPHE spokeswoman Jan Stapleman said.
EPA officials in Denver said state water sampling stopped but that the U.S. Air Force still is monitoring PFCs contamination as part of a military investigation at Peterson Air Force Base. That base is strongly suspected as a source of PFCs, a family of chemicals found in aqueous film-forming foams that firefighters use to douse fuel fires.
The city’s denial is its first response in court to a lawsuit that claims discharges of pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries violate the laws. The discharges are from Colorado Springs’ stormwater system…
Colorado Springs asserted in Monday’s filing that it “has at all times been in compliance” with permits issued by the state agency to govern the discharges and the stormwater system.
The city contends it should not be subjected to court orders or monetary penalties that the environmental agencies want a judge to impose.
Colorado Springs also contends that allegations in the lawsuit misrepresent the facts of issues in dispute.