Colorado legislators in 2021 passed a suite of laws that in various ways give state agencies new marching orders that this energy transition will reconcile past wrongs and put people on an equal footing. But there’s a lot to sort through in this.
Now comes the part where the rhetoric about a just transition of the energy economy — paying special attention to disproportionately impacted communities and rectifying past wrongs with the word “equity” in mind — gets tested in the field.
In late July and early August, the three members of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission will take turns hosting six meetings from Lamar to Grand Junction, places selectively chosen because of evidence of disproportionate impacts from energy.
The meetings serve a dual purpose. The commissioners are gathering thoughts about how the state’s four regulated gas-distribution utilities will start changing how we heat buildings and water in order to reduce emissions. They are required to submit what are called clean-heat plans.
The four gas utilities —Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas — must show how they will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030, based on a 2015 baseline.
But the commissioners are also very deliberately meeting in cities that have been identified by mapping tools as having, or being proximate to, disproportionately impacted communities.
Get accustomed to hearing that phrase, now used so often it has been reduced to an acronym in many documents: DIC. Among other things, the commissioners want to better understand how to define equity (as distinct from equality) and what constitutes a DIC community.
It’s an early milestone in Colorado’s difficult and still new process, one parallel to others underway in several states around the country.
Pushing their investigation are five laws passed by Colorado legislators in 2021 that collectively seek to put the hands of those communities on the steering wheel in ways that they have not before.
SB 21-272, “Modernize the Public Utilities Commission,” tells the PUC that it must adopt rules that “consider how best to provide equity, minimize impacts, and prioritize benefits to disproportionately impacted communities and address historical inequalities.”
What are disproportionately impacted communities? This law provides a glimpse:
“Certain communities, both in Colorado and internationally, have historically been forced to bear a disproportionate burden of adverse human health or environmental effects, as documented in numerous studies, while also facing systemic exclusion from environmental decision-making processes and enjoying fewer environmental benefits,” says SB21-272.
The law cites a 2021 report from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. The project, called Mapping for Environmental Justice, attempted to paint a holistic picture of intersecting environmental, social, and health impacts in individual states, including Colorado.
The study found that “communities of color breathe nearly twice as much diesel pollution and are 1.5 times more likely to live near a Superfund site than white communities. The disparity holds across an array of environmental hazards: from wastewater releases to air toxins, Coloradoans of color are consistently exposed to more pollution.”
This same law, SB 21-272, instructs the PUC to “identify disproportionately impacted communities” and host meetings and in other ways invite input from them to ensure that they will have at least proportionate access to the benefits of retail customer programs, incentives and investments.”
The PUC must go through a rule-making process that governs how the PUC reviews plans by utilities —including not just energy utilities, but also transportation and other sectors it regulates.
The goal is to deliver equity – which will be defined later – in programs and incentives that serve low-income customers and disproportionately impacted communities.
The second law of relevance, SB 21-264, the “Clean Heat Bill,” requires Colorado’s four natural gas utilities to start figuring out how to reduce fossil fuel combustion from buildings. It gives the largest gas utilities, including Xcel, various ways to achieve a 22% reduction in emissions by 2030. They can, for example, help customers convert to electricity through use of air-source heat pumps. Utilities are required to submit clean-heat plans.
This clean-heat bill also has an environmental justice component. That law also calls out the “historic injustices that impact lower-income Coloradans and black, indigenous, and other people of color who have borne a disproportionate share of environmental risks while also enjoying fewer environmental benefits.”
As the PUC goes about creating the rules for evaluating clean-heat plans, it must hold at least two meetings in disproportionately impacted communities.
In planning six meetings, not just two, the PUC obviously aims for a robust compliance with the letter of the law. The PUC has gone a step beyond, and we’ll explain that later in this article.
Yet a third law, HB 21-1266, called the “Environmental Justice Act,” takes direct aim and, unlike the others, delivers more explicit instructions for the Air Quality Control Commission – an agency within the state’s health department – to engage with disproportionately impacted communities.
The law incorporates demographic factors but delegated to a new Environmental Justice Action Task Force the work of defining what exactly constitutes a disproportionately impacted community. The law also added transition to a more equitable clean energy economy to the mission of the Colorado Energy Office.
Two more laws deserve mention.
SB 21-246, Promote Beneficial Electrification, requires investor-owned utilities to file plans with the PUC that must include “programs targeted to low-income housing or disproportionately impacted communities with at least 20% of the total beneficial electrification program funding” directed to those communities and income levels.
HB21-1105 modified the eligibility standards for low-income programs.
Why did all of this come together in 2021?
Ean Tafoya, of GreenLatinos, who is co-chair of the new task force, says the thinking had been growing for years of the need to “redress” inequities.
In 2019, the first year that Democrats gained a majority in both chambers, as well as the governor’s mansion, the legislators who might have carried the bills were too new to the General Assembly to be effective.
Then came the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, spurring national protests, including in Denver. This was just months after the covid pandemic descended, hitting minority populations harder.
Those things “helped to galvanize the creation of a more formidable environmental justice coalition,” says Tafoya. This pressure seems to have created “more political room for the politicians to move forward.”
Tafoya also says that this powerful new environmental justice coalition wouldn’t settle for legislation that in early drafts didn’t initially include equity provisions.
In this, he refers to major bills driven by Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver and two Boulder County legislators, Sen. Steve Fenberg and Rep. Tracey Bernett, as well as Rep. Alex Valdez and Rep. Meg Froehlich.
A bill that started out as SB 200 was recreated in SB 1266 with Faith Winter as a primary author. She did not respond to several requests for an interview.
The Environmental Justice Act is sweeping. It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas operations. It also requires that commission to adopt rules to reduce emissions from the industrial and manufacturing sector in Colorado by at least 20% by 2030 relative to 2015 levels.
Environmental justice, though, is front and center in the law. It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to promote outreach to disproportionately impacted communities by creating new ways to gather input from communities across Colorado, using multiple languages and multiple formats.
The law also created the task force of which Tafoya is a member with the responsibility to make recommendations to legislators of “practical means to address environmental justice inequities” by Nov. 14.
That task force has met four times beginning in December, and it also has five subcommittees that meet monthly.
Pueblo’s Jamie Valdez, who is also on the task force, describes it as a “very difficult process.” But the goal is to avoid compromising as has occurred in the past.
Members have received much testimony “that there has not been enough consideration or responsiveness to community and too much to industry,” he says.
The table has been tilted heavily to a discussion between industry and regulators, to the exclusion of others, says Valdez, who is paid staff and a community organizer for southern Colorado on behalf of Mothers Outfront, a mothers-funded environmental justice organization whose mission is to work for a livable climate for all children.
Equity and equitable
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has also been moving along. The commission held a workshop in February to get insights from participants about how to implement the environmental justice component of HB21-264, the law that requires the meetings in disproportionately impacted communities. In March, the PUC asked the states’ four natural gas utilities – Xcel, Black Hills Energy, Atmos, and Colorado Natural Gas – to identify three ideas for meeting locations.
Xcel identified Grand Junction, metro Denver, and Pueblo. Black Hills identified Montrose, Rocky Ford, and Yuma. Atmos Energy identified Greeley, Lamar, and Craig.
The utilities were advised to consult a data-rich mapping tool created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment called EnviroScreen. This was a result of the Environmental Justice Bill. When I first looked at this a year ago, I found it primitive. It showed the Wildridge neighborhood north of Avon and the Singletree neighborhood of Edwards to be in an environmentally impacted tract. (That all of us should be so unfortunate as to live in such areas.)
A review for this article shows a sophisticated tool, if still not complete. A tutorial explains it was created “to help identify the relative health burdens and environmental risks facing different communities across Colorado.”
On June 1, the PUC hosted a session on equity initiatives. Kelly Crandell, of the PUC staff, explained the SB 21-272 requirement to promulgate rules that seek to “provide equity and minimize impacts and prioritizes benefits to disproportionately impacted communities that have experienced historical inequalities.”
During the next few months, she said, the PUC commissioners and staff will be focusing on learning things that can be used to shape these new rules, the ones being drawn up to govern how the PUC evaluates plans by utilities.
Crandell carefully distinguished between equality and equity. With the equality, the idea is to provide something to everyone equally. So, your residential rates for electricity will be the same as your neighbors’.
Equity as Crandell explained it has a historical dimension. It recognizes that things may need to change so that others can participate, that actions of the past such as redlining must be acknowledged to properly rectify going forward.
“It’s challenging to an agency such as ours because conversations more traditionally operated in the vein of equality,” she said.
The legislation, she explained, had three dimensions: 1) recognize why certain communities have suffered, such as because of redlining practices; 2) procedural inequalities. How can the PUC make its process more accessible to the public; and 3) broadly prioritizing the benefits of new energy programs to disproportionately impacted communities.
Different sorts of meetings
Most interesting of these meetings may be at Montbello, located in northeastern Denver on the north side of I-70. It will use a new format of outreach.
There, community members will be paid to attend and share their thoughts. The meeting will be led by the Denver Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. That municipal agency has been hosting community meetings. In this case two community-based organizations have been enlisted to put it together.
“The event will include a listening session on energy priorities within these neighborhoods in addition to a discussion about clean heat plans,” the decision notice issued by the PUC on July 6 says. The event will be presented in both English and Spanish.
Ah yes – the clean heat plans. The natural gas utilities must figure out how to reduce emissions from buildings. A small bit of this can be accomplished by augmenting supplies of methane distributed to homes for heating and cooking with what is called renewable natural gas, such as that harvested from landfills. But there are many other tools – including beneficial electrification, including the use of air source heat pumps to displace or at least augment natural gas furnaces. They’re still relatively expensive, though, with a payback that in most cases will take at least several years.
Tafoya observes that focus groups have already found that tax credits won’t work for lower-income residents. “It’s clear that people want down-payment assistance, not just tax credits.”
Colorado is far from alone in trying to look at utility decisions through the new lenses of equity. A report called “Advancing Equity in Utility Regulation” issued in November 2021 by Berkeley National Laboratory notes an effort in California in 2020 requiring “environmental justice” to be part of the state’s mission. New York and Washington also adopted legislation in 2019, the latter state charging the utilities commission with “ensuring that all customers are benefiting from the transition to clean energy.”
In 2021, Massachusetts, Oregon, Illinois, and Maine all passed somewhat parallel legislation along with Colorado.
July 21: Greeley, Greeley Recreation Center, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
July 21: Denver, Montebello Recreation Center, 5-7:30 p.m.
July 27: Grand Junction, Colorado Mesa University Center, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
July 28: Montrose, Montrose Event Center, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Aug. 4: Pueblo, Bessemer Community Room at Steelworks Center for the West, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Aug. 4: Lamar Cultural Events Center, 4:30-6 p.m.
The 5 bills: SB21-272 “Measures to Modernize the Public Utilities Commission.” Requires PUC to identify disproportionately impacted communities (DICs) and to reach out to let them help create new rules.
SB 21-264, “Clean Heat Bill.” Requires natural gas utilities to begin decarbonizing gas distributed to buildings. Requires PUC to hold at least two meetings in DICs.
HB 21-1266 “Environmental Justice Act.” Instructions specifically to Air Quality Control Commission.
SB 21-246, “Promote Beneficial Electrification.” Requires 20% of program funds be used for low-income households or disproportionately impacted communities.
HB21-1105, modifies eligibility standards for low-income programs.
He explained that the engineer had estimated that the cost would be $25 million but that the contractor placed the price at “closer to $40 million,” necessitating that PAWSD reapply for a larger loan.
The meeting will be held at 5 p.m. at the PAWSD administrative office at 100 Lyn Ave.
Discharges from one of Suncor’s drainage ports accounts for between 16% and 47% of the total PFAS pumped into Sand Creek in 2021, according to a report from Wheat Ridge’s Westwater Hydrology LLC. The creek dumps into the South Platte River and the refinery can be linked to 3% to 18% of the total PFAS found in that waterway. Analysts with Westwater Hydrology prepared their report for Earthjustice, a national environmental nonprofit…Chemicals found in Sand Creek and the South Platte River can be especially troubling because cities like Commerce City, Brighton, Thornton and Aurora take in water from the river downstream of Suncor, the report indicates…
Pollution measured in the study only accounts for a portion of the discharges from Suncor, Wheeler said. The refinery installed a temporary treatment system in October to reduce PFAS discharges “but even with these measures in place, the pollution remains at toxic levels” under limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division is proposing the limits for 11 Colorado River tributaries in the valley with impaired water quality because of high levels of dissolved selenium and total recoverable iron, and in the case of two of the tributaries, E. coli. The river itself along that stretch, which meets water quality standards for selenium and E. coli, but not iron, is not itself targeted by the proposal, although it would benefit from it.
As required by the federal Clean Water Act and by Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the state is developing what it calls total maximum daily loads (TMDL) that would establish how much of those pollutants can enter each of the tributaries each day while maintaining water quality standards.
The area being targeted by regulators altogether encompasses about 138 square miles, stretching from Lewis Wash in the Clifton area to Salt Creek in western Mesa County. The area is all north of the Colorado River and is bounded on the northern end by the Government Highline Canal. That location beneath the canal is noteworthy because selenium is naturally occurring in the Mancos shale geological formation in the area, but at high levels in water can be harmful to fish and aquatic birds. The Water Quality Control Division, in its draft Grand Valley TMDL public notice, says that “the predominant source of selenium in all of the watersheds is likely groundwater inflow from canal seepage and deep percolation from irrigated lands.” Put another way, the valley’s irrigated agriculture, lying downgrade of the Government Highline Canal, is mostly driving the selenium problems in the drainages.
But as it happens, state water-quality regulators have little say over that agricultural activity. The Water Quality Control Division holds permitting authority over point sources of surface water discharges. Agricultural stormwater discharges, and return flows from irrigated agriculture, aren’t considered point sources under the Clean Water Act. The state relies on incentive-based approaches to encourage partners to work on voluntary measures to address contaminants, something that grant funding is available to support. This can include measures such as lining or piping canals and changing irrigation methods and schedules to reduce the leaching of selenium…Still, a concern for some people, including Trent Prall, public works director for the city of Grand Junction, is that because of the state’s lack of authority over the agricultural side of things, it will lean on permitted sources of surface water discharges to fix a problem that is largely agriculture-driven.
Click the link to read the article on the Aqua Talk website (Amy Schultz and Jorge Delgado):
The Brighton Village mobile home community (Park) is a 28-home community in Adams County that serves around 80 people and is a disproportionately impacted community, defined in HB21-1266 Environmental Justice Disproportionate Impacted Community. The department initially issued an Enforcement Order in 2003 due to high nitrate values and the Park’s failure to comply with the nitrate maximum contaminant levels. Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate above the MCL could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.
The 2003 enforcement order was closed in 2010. However, the department again issued an Enforcement Order in 2012 for nitrate violations and did so again in 2018. The Park had installed treatment but did not have the capabilities or the resources to operate the treatment appropriately to reliably achieve compliance. The long-term exposure to an acute contaminant created environmental injustices for this community.
From the EPA, environmental justice is “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.” The Colorado Environmental Justice Act recognizes that all people have a right to drink clean water and live free of dangerous levels of toxic pollution, experience equal protection of environmental policies, and share the benefits of a prosperous and vibrant pollution-free economy.
The department facilitated meetings with the Park and the City of Brighton. The City of Brighton and the Park decided that the best way to serve safe drinking water to the public was to connect the park to the City’s municipal water supply. However, the Park was required to upgrade its water distribution system before the connections could be made. The department provided the Park with $16,000 in grants that allowed the Park to connect to the municipal water supply.
The Safe Drinking Water Program worked in partnership with both the Park and City of Brighton to ensure this disproportionately impacted community is being provided with access to a consistent and reliable source of safe drinking water. This is an Environmental Justice win for the residents of this community, the department, and Colorado.
Most Empire residents and businesses are still without water, as of March 25, 2022 as town officials continue to search for a suspected large leak in the town’s water infrastructure. Anyone who does have water service is under a boil warning, which will remain in place until water service is restored to the entire town and it has been tested, Mayor Wendy Koch said. According to Koch and Police Chief John Stein, most of the town’s infrastructure has been pressurized with gas to locate the suspected leak. Those efforts didn’t yield any major leaks, but several smaller issues were noted and are now being addressed, Koch said. Now, Empire is restoring water service to different sections of the town to see if that helps to locate the suspected leak.
Stein said Empire will be hosting public updates at 10 a.m. March 28 and 6:30 p.m. March 29 at Town Hall. The latter will include an opportunity for public comment, but the former is an informational meeting only…
An emergency declaration has been made to assist with resources and seeking funding, Stein stated. Colorado’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response has been activated and is assisting, and volunteers were scheduled to deliver two cases of bottled water to every housing unit on March 25…
Stein said that, thankfully, several municipalities have offered to help fix whatever the problem is. However, the town is “still in detection mode,” he said. Another piece of good news, Koch detailed, is that surface water levels are back up thanks to the warmer weather. Additionally, Koch and Stein stated, Empire is adding a new filtration system to its old well. The state health department approved the design on March 24, and crews will start work on March 28.
If all goes according to plan, Koch said the town might have water service mostly restored by April 1. However, she stressed that she couldn’t guarantee it.
The Colorado health department is investigating a contaminated underground plume issuing from land next to the Denver Fire Training Academy to determine whether it is responsible for high levels of so-called “forever chemicals” in the raw water supply of an Adams County water district that serves more than 65,000 people in the north metro area.
The contamination was discovered in 2018, and since then, officials said, the City of Denver’s fire training center has stopped using the fire-fighting foam containing hazardous PFAS, or poly- and per-fluoroalkyl substances. The compounds have long lifespans and have been linked to certain cancers. Contained in such common substances as Teflon and Scotchguard, they are also widely used to fight fires.
A spokesperson for the fire academy declined to comment on the investigation and referred media inquiries to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, which said via email that it was working with the state to address the problem. It declined an interview request.
Jennifer Talbert, a hazardous materials expert overseeing the investigation for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), said she expects the investigation to be done later this year, at which time decisions on how to clean up the contaminants will be made.
“They did discover PFAS within a certain region of the [fire academy] site, but we need to do more sampling and investigation. We’re developing the plume boundary now,” Talbert said.
The four contaminated wells owned by the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District were shut down quickly in 2018 after testing showed extraordinarily high PFAS levels, 2400 parts per trillion (ppt), in the raw water, according to Kipp Scott, manager of water systems at the district.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory standard for PFAS says levels should be no higher than 70 ppt.
Since then the state and the Tri-County Health Department have issued alerts to private well owners in the area, notifying them not to drink the contaminated water. Other residents in the region are served by the South Adams County district, whose water is being treated to reduce PFAS levels to 35 ppt, a level that is considered safe under the existing voluntary federal guideline.
Anyone concerned about potential contaminants in their drinking water can have free testing done.
The CDPHE’s Talbert said it hasn’t determined who is responsible for the contamination and won’t be able to do so until its investigation is finished.
But Scott said no other PFAS sources within the district have been identified other than those found at the fire academy, whose site is less than a half mile from the contaminated wells.
“We infer that that is the largest source in the area that is affecting our groundwater supply,” Scott said. “There are no other sources identified.”
Little was known about the unregulated PFAS chemicals in Colorado until 2015 when national news began appearing about their links to cancer, their prevalence in fire-fighting foam used at military bases and fire-fighting centers, and their presence in groundwater.
Two years ago, as more testing revealed more contaminated sites, the CDPHE vowed to boost its oversight. Since then the Colorado Legislature has provided the health department with more authority and money to combat the problem. CDPHE’s approach has included conducting surveys to identify contaminated sites and affected drinking water systems, spending as much as $8 million to buy contaminated firefighting foam and store it, and helping communities whose water has been tainted by the compounds with testing support and grants to help cover treatment costs.
Dozens of fire departments, military facilities, water utilities, and commercial properties as diverse as hotels and apartment complexes are now monitoring and testing for the substances.
As Colorado ramped up its oversight, last year the EPA announced it would begin work on a regulation that will, for the first time, set an official limit on PFAS compounds in drinking water. It is set to be available for public review this fall and would be finalized by the fall of 2023.
In the meantime, Scott said the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District has spent $5 million to build a sophisticated testing and monitoring lab, and to strengthen its treatment program enough to comply with the 70 ppt federal health advisory limit.
But that won’t be enough long-term to ensure its customers have access to safe drinking water, Scott said, so the district is preparing to install an advanced $70 million treatment system to reduce PFAS levels even further. That price tag is almost three times the size of the district’s annual $26 million budget.
“If the health advisory number should go lower, and we think it will, we don’t have enough capacity to go to a lower number,” Scott said. “And we need that raw water from the wells we shut down to meet future demand.”
Who will pay to correct the situation isn’t clear yet, but Scott said the cost should not fall on his district. “We’ve spent around $5 million treating for this contaminant that is in our water supply, and we did not put it there. But that $5 million cost is being paid by each one of our residents through higher rates and fees.”
CDPHE’s Talbert said cleaning up the contamination near the fire training facility and other sites will likely be complicated because the chemicals have never been regulated and, as a result, methods and technologies for clean-up are still being developed. But she said most residents in the region have access to treated drinking water through their water utilities.
“The science is new,” Talbert said,” and we don’t know the extent of the contamination. If we find that people have an exposure we will get them on bottled water and/or a reverse osmosis system.”
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.
We’re partnering with GreenLatinos to spread the word about water reuse in Colorado, and how you can get involved in a proposed regulation. As the population in the state of Colorado increases, so do the demands on water resources. A variety of strategies are being implemented across the state to address projected gaps in water supply, and direct potable reuse (DPR) is one of those strategies. Join GreenLatinos and CDPHE to learn more about the technology and safe practice of DPR, and find out how you can get involved.
The city plans to spend upward of $500 million over 20 years to put the brakes on the volume of water pouring into Fountain Creek and points south from storm drainage…
But while the city currently complies with the federal consent decree imposed in 2020 and the 2016 agreement with Pueblo County, city officials are walking a tightrope to avoid stiff penalties and more onerous oversight.
Rich Mulledy, as head of the city’s water resources engineering division, manages that tightrope walk, which is reshaping existing drainage systems. That’s no easy trick, considering some waterways have carved 40-foot-tall cliffs along creek beds, and others sped storm runoff into tributaries via concrete channels adding to the consequent flooding downstream.
Come April, the city will mark six years under the $460 million, 20-year intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Pueblo County to fix the city’s drainage problems. The IGA emerged as a condition of Pueblo County’s approval of activation of Colorado Springs Utilities’ $825 million Southern Delivery System pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs.
Last fall, the city passed the one-year mark in the $95 million settlement of the lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators alleging Clean Water Act violations stemming from its neglected stormwater system.
Mulledy and a regiment of inspectors and planners are working under those two edicts, engineered by Mayor John Suthers, who inherited the problem when elected in 2015. Besides negotiating the two agreements, Suthers persuaded voters to pony up millions of dollars to fund the city’s catch-up game.
We have just received word that the federal government and the owner of the Sunnyside Mine have agreed to pay a total of $90 million to settle claims relating to the 2015 Gold King Mine blowout. The proposed consent decree will be posted in the Federal Register and opened to public comment for 30 days prior to being finalized.
That consent decree will “resolve all claims, cross-claims, and counterclaims between the United States and Sunnyside Gold Corporation and Kinross Gold Corporation (the “Mining Defendants”) in this multidistrict litigation,” according to the U.S. District Court of New Mexico filing.
The Land Desk will have more details—along with a wonkfest explaining why Sunnyside is even involved with an incident that occurred at a mine it doesn’t own—next week.
The settlement by the numbers:
Amount Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Canada-based Kinross Gold, will pay to the federal government under the settlement, all of which will be used to finance cleanup relating to the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Amount Sunnyside Gold will pay to the Colorado Dept. of Health and Environment.
Amount the U.S. government, on behalf of federal settling agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service—will pay to “appropriate federal accounts” under the settlement.
The Environmental Protection Agency, Justice Department, Department of the Interior, Department Agriculture and state of Colorado announced Friday they have reached a settlement with Sunnyside Gold Corp. and its parent company Kinross Gold Corp. to fund remediation in the Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton.
In the case of an old-fashioned standoff, the federal government will drop its claims against Sunnyside Gold Corp. and Canadian mining company Kinross Gold Corp. and the two companies will drop their claims against the federal government after the settlement.
Sunnyside Gold Corp. will pay $40.95 million to the federal government and the EPA and another $4.05 million to Colorado, while the United States will contribute $45 million to the cleanup of mining contamination in the area…
The agreement marks the end of Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s remediation work in the Bonita Peak Mining District. The EPA previously ordered the company to undertake a costly investigation of groundwater in the area in March 2018.
The state of Colorado has also released Sunnyside from its reclamation permit obligations, which require the company to clean up its past mining operations and meet the conditions of a reclamation plan approved by the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, a branch of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
In addition, the settlement limits the future liability of both Sunnyside Gold Corp. and its parent company…
The settlement was made as a matter of practicality with no admission of wrongdoing or liability, Myers said in an email to The Durango Herald.
Myers noted the federal government’s matching $45 million was a result of the federal government’s own liability for the Gold King Mine spill and damage to the surrounding area…
The Colorado and the federal governments have argued that Sunnyside Gold Corp. is partly at fault and responsible for funding remediation in the Bonita Peak Mining District after placing bulkheads in the 1990s to prevent the drainage of contaminated water.
In legal filings, the state has said the bulkheads backed up waste in surrounding mines, including the Gold King Mine, which was released when EPA contractors accidentally caused a blowout…
The EPA has already spent more than $75 million to remediate the site.
The Bonita Peak Mining District Community Advisory Group is working to define water-quality targets and other environmental standards that will need to be met for the area to be considered decontaminated. Those targets will help guide the work of the EPA…
[Ty Churchwell] said a full cleanup of the site will likely take at least another decade. He pointed to similar Superfund sites near Leadville and Idaho Springs that each took about two decades.
The settlement is a step in that direction.
FromThe Associated Press (James Anderson) via The Colorado Sun:
The agreement must be approved by the U.S. District Court in the District of New Mexico after a 30-day public comment period…
An EPA-led contractor crew was doing excavation work at the entrance to the Gold King Mine, another site in the district not owned by Sunnyside, in August 2015 when it inadvertently breached a debris pile that was holding back wastewater inside the mine.
An estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater poured out, carrying nearly 540 U.S. tons of metals, mostly iron and aluminum. Rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah were polluted…
Monies will be used for water and soil sampling and to build more waste repositories. The EPA said in a statement Friday it has spent more than $75 million on cleanup work “and expects to continue significant work at the site in the coming years.”
The proposed consent decree follows Sunnyside settlements with New Mexico and the Navajo Nation earlier this year. Sunnyside admits no fault in the agreement.
Hundreds of Denver property owners have failed to respond to requests or have directly refused to allow Denver Water to replace lead service lines leading to homes and businesses, a situation that jeopardizes the city’s efforts to keep lead out of drinking water.
The pipe replacement program, one of the largest in the country, is being done to help the agency comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which sharply limits lead in drinking water.
Since the program’s approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2020, Denver Water has replaced some 10,000 service lines out of 68,000 targeted in the program.
But the agency has yet to decide how to bring reluctant property owners into the fold, according to Alexis Woodrow, Denver Water’s lead reduction program manager.
“Of course we would like to get 100% consent or compliance and we’re continuing to come up with communications to make sure homeowners understand the why behind this work,” Woodrow said.
According to data obtained by Fresh Water News through an Open Records Act request, 534 property owners, roughly 5% of those targeted by the program to date, have either failed to respond to the agency’s request to replace the service lines or have specifically refused to allow the work to be done.
Top reasons for refusing, according to Woodrow, are that homeowners don’t want their landscapes disturbed or they believe their lead service lines have already been replaced.
Denver, which is Colorado’s largest municipal water utility, has known lead was present at the tap in some of its customers’ homes since it appeared in routine sampling in 2013. The levels exceeded the benchmarks set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
For several years, the utility ran pilot tests and negotiated with CDPHE and EPA over how best to eradicate the harmful metal. Though the amounts of lead found in Denver’s tap water samples varied, no amount of lead is considered safe to ingest, especially for young children.
Though lead isn’t present in the city’s treated water, it shows up at customers’ taps if it is delivered through aging lead service lines, where corrosion allows it to seep into the supply.
Cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, Penn., Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., have been dogged by an increase in lead contamination as service lines age and corrode, allowing the lead to comingle with water supplies, eventually reaching taps.
The CDPHE issued an order in 2018 requiring Denver to begin adding phosphorous to its water, one of the most effective ways to reduce corrosion in pipes. But phosphorous is also a pollutant and causes problematic algae blooms in lakes and rivers. Adding it to the municipal drinking water supply would also make it harder for wastewater treatment operators to meet their own obligations to keep phosphorous out of rivers and streams.
Due to those concerns, Aurora, Metro Water Recovery, The Greenway Foundation, and eventually Denver, sued the CDPHE in 2018 to stop the order from taking effect.
The dispute was settled after Denver was able to obtain a rare variance under the Safe Drinking Water Act in exchange for agreeing to invest some $68 million over 15 years to replace lead service lines, offer free water filters to residents as they wait for the new lines to be installed, conduct community education programs, and increase the pH of the water supply to also help reduce corrosion in pipes.
In earlier negotiations the utility had proposed replacing the lines at a much slower rate that would have taken decades to complete.
MaryAnn Nason, CDPHE spokesperson, said the agency is happy that Denver Water has been able to replace so many lines so quickly.
“While we are pleased, our goal is to have everyone participate or use a filter to keep themselves safe,” Nason said via email.
“When Denver Water’s program was approved, a strong outreach component was included. We wanted Denver Water to reach out to the community and provide educational materials about why this is important to do and how it protects public health. We understand the disruption to their lives is significant, but the outreach program is intended to help customers understand the safety and health benefits of replacing their service line,” she said.
Citing state privacy laws, Denver Water declined to identify addresses of properties that had not complied with the replacement requests. But an analysis of the zip codes where the agency has been shut out shows that the largest number, 124, are in 80205, which encompasses an area north and west of City Park and which includes Five Points and the Whittier neighborhoods.
The zip code with the second largest number of non-compliant property owners, 72, is 80220, an area that includes South Park Hill, Montclair and Hilltop.
Though no large apartment complexes have refused to replace lead lines, according to Denver Water, dozens of small multi-family units have yet to agree to have the work done, according to Fresh Water News’ analysis.
Tom Romero, an associate professor of law at the University of Denver and an expert on water equity issues, said the replacement program is critical to providing safe drinking water to everyone in the city.
“I definitely am concerned for all of those residents where you have recalcitrant property owners that are refusing to have these lead pipes replaced,” Romero said.
“This is definitely a public health issue,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable that they have been able to get a 95% response, but any lead level is putting people at risk. It goes to the duty of Denver Water to provide safe drinking water to us all.”
This year is the third year of program, and is a critical benchmark with the EPA, which will decide later this year whether to allow Denver to continue the work, or use a different strategy.
Denver Water’s Woodrow said the agency is still trying to decide how aggressive to be with reluctant property owners because legally it could access the properties without the owner’s consent.
“We have discussed internally if we could compel the customer,” she said. “But we haven’t gotten there yet in terms of making a decision.”
But that may change.
“When you’re looking at the long-term strategy, we’re going to have to come up with additional tactics to get these lines replaced,” she said.
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.
Greeley Water and Sewer customers can expect about 10% rate increases starting this month, as the department funds more than $200 million in investments over the next several years.
The Greeley Water and Sewer Board recently approved the new rates in a unanimous vote, according to a city news release. On average, residents can expect a utility rate increase of about $10 a month, or about 9.8%.
The increases take effect this month, but residents may not see the changes until their February utility bills.
The increases break down as follows, according to the release:
Water: An average increase of $4.16 per month will help cover the city’s participation in a new water storage reservoir to provide enough water for more than 4,500 new residents.
Sewer: An increase of $4.22 per month will cover the cost of state- and federally mandated sanitary sewer upgrades. The mandates reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous allowed in the city’s treated wastewater discharge to reduce algae growth.
Stormwater: An increase of $1.54 per month will help the city resolve downtown flooding issues. The city will upgrade its storm drainage to handle large rain events, such as the one in July that damaged businesses and homes.
In the release, Harold Evans, chairman of the water and sewer board, cited the regulatory changes and providing for the city’s rapidly growing population as drivers behind the rate increases.
Tests at the Cross and Caribou mine that drains into drinking water supplies show elevated levels of lead, cadmium and other toxic minerals, as the state threatens high fines.
State water quality officials have issued a cease and desist order and threatened substantial fines against owners of the Caribou gold mine above Nederland because of heavy metals leaking into drinking water sources, hammering Grand Island Resources over repeated violations.
The dripping heavy metals are not a current threat to Middle Boulder Creek, Barker Reservoir or the parts of Boulder County downstream, state officials said. But they ordered the owners to build a new containment and cleanup system, and threatened to impose fines of up to $54,833 per day for each of multiple violations for the toxic metals and for failing to report test results.
“A notice of violation is one of the most serious actions we take, and I think this shows that we really are committed to protecting the resource up there,” said Kelly Morgan, an environmental protection specialist for water quality in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “This is a big deal to us.”
In a statement from a Nederland address, Grand Island Resources acknowledged the violations, and said that it had been moving since before the state’s notice to solve the problems and “replace the last 50 years of antiquated and obsolete water purification methods and treatments.”
“We are working hand in hand with federal, state and local agencies. . . to make all the necessary investments and capital improvements that were not made by previous operators of the Cross and Caribou Mines,” the statement said. The company said it has hired a top engineering team to design new water capture and treatment facilities as ordered by the state.
Nederland wants the Boulder County Commissioners to help monitor the situation, and is keeping careful track of water supplies fed by Coon Track Creek, where the mine discharges water, and downstream waters, town trustee Alan Apt said. Nederland over the summer passed a “natural rights of rivers” resolution for exactly this reason: protecting western Boulder County’s natural resources for the public, he noted…
The once-thriving mine is near popular backcountry attractions a few miles northwest and northeast of Nederland, including Eldora ski area, to the Rainbow Lakes and Fourth of July trailheads, to the Caribou Ranch Open Space playgrounds…
Apt said Grand Island wants to increase the amount of ore it mines at Cross and Caribou and hopes to build an ore crushing and processing plant at the site…
The company’s attorney Ed Byrne said Boulder County approved an ore processing facility in 2008 and Grand Island still plans to build it, which would save dozens of truck trips a day…
In terms of how high the eventual fines might be, Byrne said, “there was no chemical spill or release of ore processing water. The higher fine levels are typically reserved for damaging or reckless releases, not rare exceedances of stringent numerical aquatic life standards.”
The state’s cease and desist order says mine owners failed to make some required pollutant reports in March and April of this year. When the state looked deeper, it found pollutant violations in those months but also many more alleged violations before and after, spanning a period of December 2020 through August 2021.
In April, for example, Cross/Caribou self-reported copper traces of 50 micrograms per liter of water, when the state standard is a daily maximum of 20. In January, the mine reported lead of 10 micrograms per liter, when the state 30-day average limit was 3.8. The state’s order charges the mine with violating the Colorado Water Quality Control Act. The notice of violations and cease and desist order in early November say the state is continuing to investigate and may have “additional enforcement actions.”
Grand Island Resources must also answer to the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, and will be subject to a hearing in front of the division’s board in mid-December. The company was trying to make improvements in recent months, Morgan said, but the state hasn’t found them effective…
The violations related to failing to report tainted water were not intentional, Byrne, the company’s attorney, said. Some were “a misinterpretation on our part of the state reporting protocols,” he said, and others were related to weather delaying timely deliveries to a lab in Montana.
This fall Colorado has launched two new programs, one aimed at removing firefighting foam containing so-called “forever chemicals” from fire departments, military bases and other properties and an emergency grant program aimed at helping communities where the chemicals have appeared in drinking water.
The chemicals, known broadly as PFAS or poly- and per-fluoroalkyl substances, have long lifespans and have been linked to certain cancers. Contained in such common substances as Teflon and Scotchguard, they are also widely used to fight fires, particularly those involving jet fuel.
“We’re learning more every day about PFAS and its exposure in our environment,” said Erin Garcia, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
The unregulated substances were once thought to be rare, but since at least 2015 have shown up at alarming levels in communities such as Fountain and Security, where groundwater was contaminated by runoff from the nearby Peterson Air Force Base. Those two communities were forced to shut down their water systems, find temporary substitute supplies, and build new treatment systems.
The chemicals have also been found in groundwater wells that serve Commerce City and in areas near the Suncor Refinery in Adams County and Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, among other sites.
Two years ago, as more testing revealed more contaminated sites, the CDPHE vowed to boost its oversight. Since then the Colorado Legislature has provided the health department with more authority and money to combat the problem, including conducting surveys to identify contaminated sites and drinking water systems, and providing as much as $8 million to buy contaminated firefighting foam and store it, and to help communities whose water has been tainted by the compounds.
Dozens of fire departments, military facilities, water utilities, and commercial properties as diverse as hotels and apartment complexes, are now monitoring and testing for the substances.
As Colorado has ramped up its oversight, last month the EPA announced it would begin work on a regulation that will, for the first time, set a limit on PFAS compounds in drinking water. It is set to be available for public review next fall and would be finalized by the fall of 2023.
Ron Falco, CDPHE’s safe drinking water program manager, said he’s pleased the EPA is moving to regulate PFAS, but he said fast action is critical.
“We want the EPA to hit that timeline,” he said.
The South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, which serves Commerce City, is watching the state’s progress carefully. It discovered PFAS contamination in 2018 when it began testing voluntarily for the substances after the crises in Fountain and Security.
It already had in place a carbon filtering system and was able to strengthen it to reduce PFAS contamination in its system to 35 parts per trillion (ppt), half of the EPA’s voluntary 70 ppt guideline. It also had to shut down wells whose contamination levels were so high, 2400 ppt, that no amount of carbon filtering could remove the chemicals fast enough to keep the drinking water safe.
“The key here is that we can treat the current levels,” said Kipp Scott, manager of drinking systems at the South Adams County district, but better treatment will be needed once the federal regulation takes effect.
And that means the district will need to install a new system that uses an ion exchange technology to remove the chemicals. Its estimated cost is $70 million. Scott said the district hopes the state’s emergency grant fund and new federal infrastructure dollars will help cover the cost.
“I hope this moves in the right direction, and we can continue to provide safe water to our customers,” Scott 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.
Following repeated pollution violations this year and calls to shut down the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City, Colorado health officials are seeking to renew the facility’s water quality permit, albeit with tighter restrictions.
The refinery has been allowed to operate on expired permits because the company applied to renew them before they lapsed. And now officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are considering a new water quality permit for the facility, spokeswoman Erin Garcia said in a release.
The new permit would be more restrictive than the old one, Garcia said, and aims to better protect Sand Creek and downstream waters. The permit would also require more transparency surrounding the refinery’s operations and impose more pollution monitoring requirements and limits for toxic metals and chemicals.
Suncor would be required to conduct “frequent” site inspections ensure that drinking water moving through its property remains safe, bolster its maintenance operations and alert people by text message if or when a spill occurs…
But the draft permit isn’t finished yet, so state officials are soliciting public input. The department will host a virtual meeting Thursday between 6:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. to review current details of the draft permit. In addition the department will accept public feedback on the draft through Feb. 10, 2022. Additional details and public comment sections can be found online at http://cdphe.colorado.gov.
The facility has repeatedly violated pollution standards, even after state health officials boasted last year of fining the company up to $9 million for violations in 2017. Between March 27 and April 22 of this year, the refinery exceeded pollution limits 15 times, emitting too-high levels of hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide…
State officials are also currently considering an air quality permit for the refinery, which would allow more of some types of pollution and crack down on others, The Denver Post reported in May. That proposed permit would raise permissible limits of volatile organic compounds that form ground-level ozone by 138 tons per year and allow 11 tons more particulate soot a year. It would, however, reduce sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide…
In the bigger picture, however, Suncor has pledged to invest $300 million in the refinery before 2023 to make the facility “better, not bigger.” To that end, Adesanya told The Post in September that the company installed an automated shutdown system in part of the plant last year and will upgrade the rest of the facility with similar technology by the end of next year.
Colorado water quality regulators have issued a cease and desist order to the owner of two hard-rock mines located just outside the town of Nederland, alleging the mines have discharged potentially hazardous pollutants well in excess of permitted levels into nearby watersheds.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division issued a notice of violation on Nov. 5 to Grand Island Resources, LLC, which acquired the Cross and Caribou Mines in western Boulder County after the death of former owner and miner Tom Hendricks in 2020.
The violation notice came after a series of compliance advisories were sent to the company over the summer. The November notice alleges a failure to comply with current water quality standards, citing multiple excess effluent discharges of heavy metals during the months of December 2020 to August 2021, as well as a failure to comply with required reporting of additional water pollutants.
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Pollutants listed in the violation for exceeding the daily or monthly limits included lead, copper, zinc, silver and cadmium, with the self-monitored data showing several occasions where effluent discharges exceeded levels by up to three or four times the permitted amounts.
Grand Island Resources is currently permitted through the state to release treated wastewater via one outfall into Coon Track Creek within the specified effluent limits. The need to stay within these limits is underscored by the fact that the small creek serves as a tributary in the Boulder Creek watershed, ultimately joining another creek through the town of Nederland and flowing into the Barker Reservoir, one of several potable water sources for the city of Boulder.
In high concentrations, heavy metals are well documented to cause impacts to the environment and human health, including the ability to accumulate in the body over time and cause disease. Critically, the 2021 report of Boulder’s drinking water quality — which employs data from 2020 — reported no violations for lead or copper levels, and no public health advisories have been issued to date.
Direct water quality testing for the natural spring located off Caribou Road — a spring often utilized by locals and recreational visitors — was not immediately available, nor was the immediate source of the spring known.
Representatives of Grand Island Resources did not respond to requests for comment.
This is not the first time compliance advisories or notices of violations have been issued by CDPHE for the Cross and Caribou Mines. Publicly available documents show repeated enforcement actions regarding either excess effluent discharge or a failure to comply with reporting standards of treated wastewater dating back to the 1980s under previous ownership.
The current notice of violation for heavy metal water contaminants comes as Grand Island Resources is seeking revision of its current state permit, having filed for review with the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, a branch of the state Department of Natural Resources, on Feb. 8. No determination has been made to date, with a pending response required from the mining company to proceed. At the same time, the notice of violation has been scheduled for a hearing before the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board on Dec. 15 to 16.
Grand Island Resources is also currently operating under a special use development agreement with the county of Boulder, according to Jesse Rounds, a senior planner with Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting. Rounds explained that this agreement is separate from the state mining permit and was acquired in the transfer of mine ownership.
According to Rounds, so long as the existing agreement is upheld, the agreement remains in place indefinitely. However, the county is now currently reviewing if the requested modifications to the state would continue to uphold the existing special use agreement, or if a full special use review may be necessary.
The Cross and Caribou Mines were once estimated to potentially be worth billions of dollars in gold, raising questions as to the long-term scale of mining to be conducted by the new company, and the subsequent implications for Boulder County.
“Mining has had an enormous impact on Nederland’s history,” Nederland Mayor Kris Larsen said in an interview. “It’s why our town exists in the first place, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be part of our future as the demand for domestically sourced minerals is only going to grow. But it can’t be done like it’s been done. It has to be done in a responsible way that protects our air, water, and common environment.”
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The city of Steamboat Springs is exploring a way to help it stay in compliance with state regulations and also cool down chronically high temperatures in an impaired stretch of the Yampa River.
A program called water-quality trading could allow the city to meet the requirements of its wastewater-treatment facility’s discharge permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by cooling other areas of the river by planting trees.
The Yampa River flows through downtown Steamboat, where several parks and the Core Trail have been built along its banks. The river, a vital and cherished amenity for the Steamboat community, is popular with tubers and anglers. According to a 2017 survey of citizens, 75% of respondents ranked the management and health of the Yampa as essential or very important.
But low flows and high temperatures, made worse in recent years by climate change, have impacted the public’s ability to use one of their favorite amenities. In July, the city closed the river to commercial use because of high temperatures — over 75 degrees. The city also recommended a voluntary closure for noncommercial users of the river.
The entire 57-mile segment of the Yampa from above the confluence with Oak Creek to above the confluence with Elkhead Creek often has temperatures that are too high during the summer months, and in 2016 the segment was designated as impaired for temperature under the Clean Water Act. For July, August, September and November, stream temperatures exceed state standards for a cold-water fishery.
Because the river is classified as impaired, city officials expect that when CDPHE issues a future discharge permit for the city’s wastewater-treatment plant, it will include more-stringent water temperature standards. The wastewater-treatment plant may not be able to meet these standards unless it cools the effluent before releasing it back into the river. The city’s current discharge permit expires at the end of the year.
According to CDPHE Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Garcia, Steamboat’s next permit will likely not have temperature limits, but will have temperature monitoring requirements. The soonest the city would have temperature limits for the wastewater treatment plan is Jan. 1, 2027.
“These monitoring requirements are included so that we have a full understanding of the temperature issues in the Yampa River and at the plant before we set any temperature limits,” Garcia said in an email.
An algaecide that was toxic to fish entered Mill Creek this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has learned based on discussions with Vail Resorts.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife recorded 120 dead fish Tuesday in Mill Creek and Gore Creek in Vail, where a spill was reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by Vail Resorts…
The department said it is inspecting Mill and Gore creeks to determine if there were possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, Nason said.
The department coordinated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide the initial investigation Tuesday. Friday’s inspection was a follow-up to that effort, Nason said…
On Monday, Vail Resorts was contacted by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which had noticed an abnormally high water demand in the core Vail area over the weekend.
The water and sanitation district had narrowed down the high use to a storage tank at Golden Peak. The major customer user from that tank is Vail Resorts for its snowmaking system, which, according to a memo from the town of Vail’s Environmental Sustainability Department, is not usually online until Oct. 1.
Vail Resorts, according to the memo, discovered that a few isolation valves on their snowmaking setup had been left open since March. Maintenance had been performed on the snowmaking system on Sept. 17, which required the drain line to be opened for repair work.
On Monday, the valves for the snowmaking setup were shut, which stopped the discharge of water to Mill Creek…
The discharged water was blue-gray, and bugs, fish and algae had been killed in 1,500 feet of affected creek. Common algaecides contain copper sulfate, which is blue and can be toxic to fish.
“Based on discussions with Vail Resorts, we learned that the spilled water to the river is a combination of potable water and pond water with algaecide, which in this case was toxic to fish given the dead fish,” Nason said. “While events that lead to fish kills are an immediate concern, dead fish doesn’t always mean there is an urgent public health threat.”
The fish were surrounded by high levels of the spilled and contaminated water, Nason said.
But for people or dogs playing near or in this area, Nason said the risk of health impacts are expected to be low “because much of that spilled water has been washed away and diluted as it moves downstream — otherwise we would be seeing many more dead fish downstream.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Sam Klomhaus):
A group of concerned Grand Valley organizations announced Wednesday they plan to appeal a decision by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to implement total maximum daily levels of selenium and recoverable iron in watersheds north of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley.
Selenium, recoverable iron and E. Coli are all “pollutants of concern” in the watershed, according to a CDPHE report on the total maximum daily levels.
According to the report, elevated selenium levels can cause mortality, deformity and reproductive failure in fish and aquatic birds.
The decision, which would affect 14 “washes” from the Government Highline Canal diversion to below Salt Creek, was announced Aug. 10. The appeal would stop the decision from being forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency and formally implemented while the appeal process is ongoing.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said Wednesday he was “saddened and surprised” by the CDPHE’s decision, which he said ignored ongoing efforts to mitigate selenium levels in area water, as well as the amount of selenium that naturally occurs in area soils and gets washed into the watershed whenever it rains…
Harris said that while protecting water quality is important, the amount of selenium reduction the CDPHE is requiring is impossible from a practical and cost standpoint.
To comply with the regulations, Harris explained, the economic and physical landscape of the Grand Valley would have to change. The cost of complying with CDPHE’s proposed regulations would be borne by area governments and passed on to residents, Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Schwenke said.
Organizations supporting the appeal are Associated Members of Growth and Development, city of Fruita, city of Grand Junction, Mesa County Valley School District 51, Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, Grand Valley Water Users Association, Housing and Building Association of Colorado, Mack airport, Mesa County, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, Palisade Irrigation District and Western Colorado Contractors Association.
The selenium in the soil is washed out of the Bookcliffs and into the watershed, Harris said, and mitigation efforts include lining irrigation canals and ditches to keep the selenium from leeching in.
Harris said there has already been a lot of success reducing the selenium levels in the watershed since the 1970s and 80s, success he contends the CDPHE has ignored.
Colorado state health officials said they’re hopeful a recent federal court ruling that effectively overturned Trump-era rules reducing oversight of Western rivers and streams will allow states to revert back to a more protective standard.
“We are aware of Arizona’s court decision and are following what it means for other states, especially arid states such as Colorado. We are hopeful the Arizona ruling will apply nationwide because it has the potential to allow states to revert back to standards that protected our state waters more,” said Trisha Oeth via email.
Oeth, who is the environmental health and protection policy director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), also said the state understood the need to ensure that more certainty regarding the regulations was critical to protect all the interest groups affected by them.
The Trump rule sought to overturn Obama Administration rules that expanded the scope of the Clean Water Act. But Aug. 30, the Arizona court rejected it, saying it harmed streams in Western states and ignored important science. It has directed regulators across the country to use a set of rules developed prior to the Obama Administration’s actions until the Biden Administration can develop new regulations.
Since 2019, when the Trump-era rule was finalized, the CDPHE has been working, without success, on a proposed permitting program that lawmakers would have to approve. The permitting program would have covered streams and rivers left unprotected by the Trump rule. The so-called dredge-and-fill permits proposed by the state would be required when activities such as road and home building affect streams no longer covered by the Trump rule.
But farm interests, developers and contractors remain concerned that the Clean Water Act (CWA) rule, known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, will remain mired in legal battles and regulatory uncertainty, delaying projects and raising their costs.
“It’s a big fear of ours,” said Zach Riley, the Colorado Farm Bureau’s director of public policy. The organization, which has 23,000 members, had supported the narrower WOTUS rule.
The political seesaw has been going on for decades with the CWA legally hamstrung over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches.
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, the CWA is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been difficult to administer, in part because the country is home to widely different geographies and because of numerous court cases that have altered how it is interpreted by different presidential administrations.
Western states have been particularly concerned because in the Midwest and East, for instance, major rivers that carry barge and shipping traffic are clearly “navigable,” the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that often don’t flow year round and don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. Over the years many of those streams too became protected by the Clean Water Act.
The Trump administration’s WOTUS rule, however, excluded them, saying that only navigable streams would be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states that don’t flow year round or carry commercial shipping traffic would no longer have been protected.
Whether Colorado can or should craft a new permitting regulation that will remove it from the political back-and-forth that has dogged WOTUS and provide industry and environmental groups with more certainty isn’t clear yet.
The CDPHE has not yet said what it plans to do, saying it is still analyzing the Arizona decision.
“At the state level, it will be interesting,” said Alex Funk, senior counsel and director of water with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which has advocated for a new state permitting program. “We’re still supportive of a state program to get out of this habit of having new WOTUS rules every four years…we need something that will survive at the federal level.”
Still others want the CDPHE to take a breather, to wait and see how the EPA and other agencies interpret this latest ruling before trying to create a new state regulation.
“Given the pace of change and the multiple rounds of litigation, the state could take more time to discuss what’s needed,” said Gabe Racz, an attorney who represents water utilities and industry at the Colorado Water Congress.
And Racz said he believes there is a chance that the Biden Administration will be able to craft new rules that can endure at the federal level, regardless of who is in the White House.
“The Biden Administration announced they planned to develop a durable rule. I’m hopeful. That’s a step in the right direction,” Racz 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.
A state effort to measure air pollution levels near the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City found elevated levels of hazardous particulate matter in the area, officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a communication to residents Thursday.
The new data were collected by CDPHE’s mobile air monitoring lab, which was stationed at the Eagle Pointe Recreation Center in Commerce City between May 14 and July 17. They showed that levels of fine particle pollution — an air pollutant known as PM2.5 because it consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter — were higher in the Commerce City and north Denver area in early summer than at many other monitoring stations along the Front Range.
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“CDPHE sent the mobile lab to the area because of department and community concerns regarding air quality in the area,” the department said. “Fine particle pollution in the area comes from local sources, such as Suncor and vehicles, and more distant sources, such as wildfire smoke. The mobile lab is not able to determine the sources of pollution it measures.”
The mobile lab was stationed less than a mile from the boundaries of the Suncor refinery, closer than any of the state’s permanent monitoring stations are located. The refinery and other industrial facilities in the north Denver metro area are known to emit high levels of pollutants, but environmental activists and residents, many of whom are low-income and people of color, have long complained that the area has lacked adequate air-quality monitoring.
The results of the state’s air monitoring investigation suggest that PM2.5 is the “most prominent pollutant of health concern in the area,” CDPHE said. Levels of another common pollutant, ozone, were lower on average than in many other parts of the Denver metro area.
The effort also found that levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, “did not reach levels experts expect would cause health impacts,” though CDPHE officials cautioned that scientists don’t yet fully understand how VOCs may interact with each other or other pollutants to cause or exacerbate health impacts. “Whether someone might experience health impacts depends on many factors, including the amount they are exposed to and for how long,” said a CDPHE website showing the results of the investigation.
The department says that it’s planning to send the mobile lab back to the Commerce City area in the future. It’s one of several efforts to improve air monitoring in the area surrounding the Suncor facility, including a grant-funded community program operated by the nonprofit Cultivando; new requirements for “fenceline” monitoring mandated by legislation passed earlier this year; and a voluntary monitoring website recently launched by Suncor itself.
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Colorado water commissioners declined to upgrade water quality rules for the urban stretch of river, though conservation groups say they are finally being heard.
Public officials, conservation groups and citizen speakers pleaded with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission [August 9, 2021] to reverse a 2020 decision and strengthen protections for the South Platte River in north Denver and Adams County, but the commissioners declined.
Opponents of the commission’s decision last year thought they had one last chance in a “town hall” feedback format to urge the commissioners to revisit the controversial vote, which rejected a staff recommendation to upgrade the South Platte to higher water quality protections. They pointed to the recent weeks of high heat and air pollution in metro Denver, as well as a new climate change report showing irrefutable and irreversible damage to the environment, as more reasons to protect the river with tougher regulations…
“We cannot wait five more years to upgrade or revisit what’s happening to the communities in north Denver,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of the nonprofit GreenLatinos.
The commissioners, who are appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to oversee the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said they would not reverse their 2020 decision now. The coalition favoring more protections said after the town hall they would consider trying to force the commission to reconsider through a petition process, by taking legal action…
But some commissioners appeared to leave the door open to further discussions and to seek more community input on future river decisions…
Those who want to elevate the South Platte’s urban stretches used the commission’s town hall comment period to attack the 2020 decision. The staff of the water quality division last year had recommended that the South Platte River through north Denver and Adams County, long plagued by industrial releases and wastewater effluent, be upgraded to the next higher level of stream protections.
The higher level would have forced existing polluters in that section, like Metro Wastewater, Suncor or Molson Coors, to avoid further degrading water quality with any new activity unless they could prove it was essential to their continuing business. As it stands now, those existing polluters have “protected use” status that permits them to degrade the water, even though water quality in those central urban streams has improved in recent decades.
The Colorado division of Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Adams County Commissioners and others had supported the staff request for a river protection upgrade. The water commissioners rejected the idea last year, and then again in June.
Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said he wanted to be frank with the water commissioners that not enough opponents were prepared for the discussion ahead of the 2020 decision.
“Back in 2020 we did not know how this specific decision would affect our river and our communities,” O’Dorisio said.
Jeff Neuman-Lee, describing himself as a citizen speaker for the town hall forum, pointed to Colorado’s air fouled by wildfire smoke and heat-generated ozone in recent weeks.
“We’ve been just degrading our Earth over and over and over again, and we can’t tolerate any more,” he said. “It’s depressing to see that we’re allowing water quality to go unheeded; to create stretches of our rivers and say we don’t care about them, we’re just going to let them go.”
Some of Monday’s speakers said they were concerned that leaving the South Platte’s water quality protection where it is now will weaken the current permit renewal process underway for the Suncor refinery, which borders Sand Creek as it empties into the South Platte. The state health department is reviewing and answering public comments on Suncor’s permit application, and conservationists and neighborhood groups want Suncor’s water and air pollution caps cut way back.
“This idea of grandfathered legacy pollution,” Tafoya said, “just because they always have, doesn’t mean they should continue to.”
The Snake River Water District will undergo a variety of rehabilitation and improvements throughout the next 10 years based on its 2021 master plan.
The district, which provides drinking water to the Keystone valley, underwent a study with an engineering firm to look at its infrastructure’s strengths and weaknesses. The idea to look into infrastructure upgrades started about two years ago when the district was notified it had a slight lead exceedance based on two water samples.
Scott Price, executive director and district administrator, said this occurs not because there is an issue with the actual water, but because pipes in some older homes in the area were built with lead and are still in use. If the water sits in the pipes for too long, it can lead to concentrations of lead in the water samples. Price said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has to use the water that first comes out when the faucet is turned on when it tests water samples, which will likely be affected by lead if the water sat unused in old pipes.
The district has three base plants, each with its own storage and water filtration system. The second base, which is also home to the district’s office, is likely to need an additional storage tank to serve the high-density area of Keystone Resort, as well as a pump station that can transport water uphill from the third to the second base.
An existing infrastructure issue to address is water pipe breakage, something Price said can cost around 10 times more to fix in the winter than it does in the summer. Engineers looked at which pipes were more likely to break, but also the severity of consequences that can occur from a breakage.
The study prioritized which pipes and fire hydrants in the district would need attention immediately, creating a map showing the different priorities based on each area. The district plans to chip away at these pipe and hydrant upgrades little by little during the 10-year plan.
Meanwhile, the third plant underwent $8.5 million in upgrades a couple years ago, including a new filtration system. Price said he expects this filtration system to be in compliance for decades to come as water quality regulations get tighter over time…
Price also said that should the base two plant need upgrades — which he is expecting to get a decision from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by the end of the year — the whole district will be able to temporarily operate on the new base three plant.
Lastly, the study showed that the district’s Pilot Lode storage tank by the Settlers Creek townhomes will need improvements to its interior lining, as it is around 25 years old and steel constructed.
The study estimates that over 10 years, the district will need about $38.5 million in work, estimated as follows:
Pump station from base three to base two: $1.5 million
Base two storage tank: $7.6 million
Base two groundwater under direct influence compliance: $11.8 million
Pilot Lode tank rehabilitation: $550,000
Pipeline replacements: $13.5 million
Fire hydrant replacements: $1.6 million
On top of these costs there are several smaller projects included in the master plan that account for the remaining $2 million of the budget. These estimates cover only the cost of construction, and the district will need to pay more in the coming months for architects and engineers to design the systems…
The plan calls for a 12% rate increase at the start of 2022, and the Snake River Water District’s board is currently planning to do 12% increases over the next three years. The base quarterly fee will go from $65 in 2022 to $91 in 2024.
The Snake River Water District hasn’t increased its water rates in about eight years, which was then only a 3% increase. Prior to that, it hadn’t raised its quarterly rates since the 1990s.
The Arkansas Valley Conduit promises to bring clean drinking water to more residents of southeast Colorado
n the 1940s, the Arkansas River was dammed south of town to build [John Martin Reservoir], a place locals call the Sapphire on the Plains. The reservoir was tied up in a 40-year battle until Colorado and Kansas came to an agreement, in 2019, to provide an additional water source to help keep the levels high enough for recreation and to support fish.
Forty years may seem like a long time to develop a plan to save fish and improve water levels for a reservoir, but southeastern Colorado is used to long fights when it comes to water…
For nearly a century, leaders in southeastern Colorado have worked on plans to bring clean drinking water to the area through the proposed Arkansas Valley Conduit, but progress on the pipeline project stalled after a major push in the 1960s. Pollution, water transfers and years of worsening drought amid a warming climate continue to build stress for water systems in the area. Adding to that, the area continues to see population decline combined with a struggling economy.
The water needed for the conduit will be sourced from melting snowpack in the Mosquito and Sawatch mountain ranges [ed. and Colorado River Basin]. Under the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, passed in the early 1960s, the water has been allocated for usage in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The water will be stored at Pueblo Reservoir and travel through existing infrastructure to east Pueblo near the airport. From there, the conduit will tie into nearly 230 miles of pipeline to feed water to 40 communities in need.
Renewed plans to build a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water to the Lower Arkansas Valley are bringing hope for many people in southeastern Colorado. But in an area that is inextricably linked to its water, the future can seem unclear…
“Deliver on that promise”
“It was nearly 100 years ago, in the 1930s, that the residents of southeast Colorado recognized that the water quality in the lower valley of the Arkansas River was quite poor,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and a former Bent County commissioner.
Water systems in the district, which includes Pueblo, Crowley, Bent, Prowers, Kiowa and Otero counties, have two main issues affecting drinking water.
The first is that a majority of those systems rely on alluvial groundwater, which can have a high level of dissolved solids. This can include selenium, sulfate, manganese and uranium, which are linked to human health concerns.
Second, the remaining systems in the water district rely on the Dakota-Cheyenne bedrock aquifer that can be affected by naturally occurring radionuclides. Radium and other radionuclides in the underlying geologic rock formation can dissolve into the water table and then be present in drinking water wells, also carrying health risks.
In 1962, residents in southeastern Colorado thought President John F. Kennedy was delivering a solution to their drinking water problem during a ceremony in Pueblo. Congress had passed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act, and Kennedy came to Pueblo to authorize the construction of a pipeline to deliver clean drinking water…
Residents of the 1930s began working on ideas to deliver clean drinking water to southeastern Colorado. By the 1950s, they were selling gold frying pans to raise money to send backers to Washington, D.C., to encourage Congress to pass the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act. But it wasn’t until 1962 that the pipeline authorization became a reality.
Fast forward 58 years, and two more politicians came to Pueblo to address a crowd about the same pipeline project. This time, on Oct. 3, 2020, it was at the base of Pueblo Dam. Because of funding shortfalls, the Arkansas Valley Conduit was never built after it was authorized in 1962.
The Colorado communities could not afford to cover 100% of the costs, as initially required, so in 2009, the act was amended to include a 65% federal share and a 35% local cost share. Additionally, in 2020, Congress appropriated $28 million more toward the project, according to the water conservancy district.
That October day, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner took turns talking about the importance of the project. They told a small crowd that when the pipeline is built, it will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 residents in southeastern Colorado…
The water conservancy district estimates the pipeline project’s cost will range from $546 million to $610 million…
Physical construction of the pipeline won’t start until 2022, according to the water district…
“The solution to pollution Is dilution”
A hand-painted sign with stenciled letters welcomes travelers on Highway 96 into Olney Springs. The highway cuts across four blocks that make up the width of the small town with around 340 residents.
Olney Springs is one of six water systems in Crowley County that plans to have a delivery point, known as a spur, on the Arkansas Valley Conduit. The plans for the pipeline call for two spurs in Pueblo County, three in both Bent and Prowers counties, and one in Kiowa County. Out of the 40 total participants, the remaining 25 are in Otero County…
Located along the Arkansas River about 70 miles east of Pueblo, La Junta is the largest municipality in Otero County. With its population around 7,000 and a Walmart Supercenter, a Holiday Inn Express and Sonic Drive-In, La Junta can feel like a metropolis when compared to Olney Springs.
La Junta is one of two Arkansas Valley Conduit participants, along with Las Animas, that uses reverse osmosis to remove potentially harmful and naturally occurring toxins from the water. Reverse osmosis is a process that uses pressure to push water through a membrane to remove contaminants. According to the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit Environmental Impact Statement, reverse osmosis can treat source water to meet standards, but the brine from the process “is an environmental concern, and operation costs are high.”
The other participants use conventional methods to treat water. The environmental impact statement said those methods can be as simple as adding chlorine for disinfection and filtration or adding chemicals to remove suspended solids, but that those treatments “…cannot remove salt or radionuclides from water.”
Tom Seaba, director of water and wastewater for La Junta, said out of a total of 24 water districts in Otero County, 19 were in violation with the state due to elevated levels of radionuclide.
Four of the 19 came into compliance with the state’s drinking water standards after La Junta brought them onto its water system. The remaining 15 are still in violation with the state, according to Seaba.
La Junta spent $18.5 million to build a wastewater treatment plant that came online in 2019 to help meet water standards for its community. But the city’s water treatment came with its own issue: selenium.
After La Junta treats its water using reverse osmosis, the water system is left with a concentrate, which is safe drinking water. However, it’s also left with a waste stream high in selenium. “That wastewater has to go somewhere,” Seaba said. It goes to the city’s new wastewater treatment plant…
According to the environmental impact statement, “La Junta’s wastewater discharge makes up about 1.5% of average annual flow in the Arkansas River.” The study goes on to say that during drought or low-flow events, the wastewater discharge can contribute up to half of the streamflow downstream from the gage.
Seaba is looking to the Arkansas Valley Conduit as a possible answer. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he said. The water from the pipeline will not have a selenium problem, Seaba explained. By blending water from the conduit with the selenium waste from reverse osmosis, La Junta hopes to reduce costs and stay compliant with Environmental Protection Agency standards to discharge into the river.
The environmental review studied a section of the Arkansas River from where Fountain Creek runs into the river east to the Kansas border. The study found that a section of the river was impaired by selenium…
“I sure don’t drink it”
The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level in drinking water at 5 picocuries per liter of air for combined radium and 30 micrograms per liter for combined uranium. If contaminant levels are above those numbers, the water system is in violation of drinking water regulations, which the state enforces.
According to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Patterson Valley Water Company in Otero County, one of the 40 pipeline participants, had the highest result of 31 picocuries per liter for combined radium in 2020. In that same county, Rocky Ford, another pipeline participant, had a high result of 0.2 picocuries per liter for combined radium. According to the state health department, Rocky Ford’s combined radium sample numbers were last recorded in 2013.
Manzanola, also in Otero County and a pipeline participant, topped the list with the highest result of 42 micrograms per liter for combined uranium in 2020. In contrast, 19 other pipeline participants, from across the valley, had results of 0 micrograms per liter for combined uranium, according to the most recent numbers from the state health department.
Levels of the two carcinogens are sporadic throughout the valley. The average of the highest results of all 40 participants in the pipeline for combined radium is roughly 8 picocuries per liter and combined uranium is roughly 5 micrograms per liter. According to Seaba, averaging the members’ highest results might seem unfair to some individual water systems because it brings their numbers up, but what those averages do show is that water in Pueblo Reservoir, which will feed the future conduit, is approximately three times less affected by combined radium and combined uranium than the average of current water used by pipeline participants. In 2020, the highest result of combined radium in the Pueblo Reservoir was 2.52 picocuries per liter, and the highest result of combined uranium was 1.7 micrograms per liter…
“I sure don’t drink it,” said Manny Rodriquez. “I don’t think anybody in town drinks the water.”
Rodriquez, who grew up in and still lives in Rocky Ford, was not sure if the water at his apartment was in violation of the state’s clean drinking water act or not. State data showed at that time his water was not in violation. Colorado is required to notify residents if their water system is in violation of the clean drinking water act…
MaryAnn Nason, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, used an example to show how violations can add up: “If a public water system has two entry points that fail for both combined radium and gross alpha (measures of radionuclides), and they have those same violations for 10 years each quarter, that is going to appear as 160 violations on the website. But really, it is one naturally occurring situation that exists for a relatively long time,” Nason said.
For some residents like Ruby Lucero, 83, it makes little difference to her if her water is in violation with the state or not. She plans to buy her drinking water no matter what the results say about her tap water…
“The struggling farmer”
In the past decade, Otero County has seen a 2.9% drop in population. Residents have a ballpark difference of $38,000 in the median household income compared to the rest of the state, and the county is not alone. All six counties that are part of current plans for the Arkansas Valley Conduit are seeing economic hard times.
Adding to those factors is drought. Years of drought keep hitting the area’s No. 1 industry: agriculture.
The Rocky Ford Ditch’s water rights date back to 1874, making them some of the most senior water rights in the Arkansas River system. In the early 1980s, Aurora was able to buy a majority of those water rights. Over time, Aurora acquired more shares and has converted them to municipal use…
“We still have a heavy lift before us”
Planned off the main trunk of the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pump station near Wiley will push water along a spur to support Eads in Kiowa County. Water that ends up in Eads will have traveled the longest distance of the pipeline project. The majority of the pipeline will be gravity-fed, but this section will need to be pumped uphill.
The journey is a good representation of Eads’ battle with water. Not only is clean drinking water needed, but the area is also desperate for relief from years of drought exacerbated by climate change…
Long said that Eads is different from a majority of the other participants in the project because it is not located along the Arkansas River…
The domestic water that will be delivered via the conduit is even more important for a town like Eads, said Long. “It’s very difficult to attract new industry when you have a limited supply of very poor water.”
Long believes the conduit will make a huge difference to support communities in the Lower Arkansas River Valley…
Long has been working on the Arkansas Valley Conduit project for nearly 18 years.
“After such a long fight, to finally be where we are feels good, but honestly I can say it doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Only because I know we have so much work still to do, and I know how difficult the past 18 years have been,” Long said. “We still have a heavy lift before us.”
Members of the Water Quality Control Commission said they were shocked by the blowback to a proposed change that would have made it easier for industry, utilities to send more pollution downstream.
The state Water Quality Control Commission has delayed for at least a decade a controversial proposal that would have allowed further degradation of Colorado waters already challenged by pollution
In a scheduled review of the state’s “antidegradation” provision — a key to the federal Clean Water Act — some on the commission had sought to broaden chances for industries to discharge more pollutants into streams already considered heavily impacted by historic degradation. The rule currently in place says polluters must make a compelling argument that worsening the conditions of a stretch of river is unavoidable in creating economic growth for a community.
Colorado waters are divided into three categories: “outstanding” waters, where no degradation can be permitted; “reviewable,” meaning degradation is only allowed if there is no other way for the economic activity to move forward; and “use protected,” where industrial or city dischargers can degrade existing water quality in heavily impacted streams in order to maintain or expand their operations.
Conservation groups and multiple local and state officials argued last week that the commission’s proposed change would have allowed many more Colorado streams to fall under “use protected,” even when the entity seeking higher pollution permits was the one responsible for historic pollution.
Heavy industrial users, such as Metro Wastewater Reclamation, which treats all metro area sewage, could have used the opening to say they didn’t need to further clean up their discharge.
Citing the intense blowback against the proposed change by dozens of conservation and community groups testifying earlier in the week, the commission late Friday said current protections would stay in place until at least 2031.
“The decision comes after extensive stakeholder engagement with the EPA, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, environmentalists and regulated entities, and it maintains the regulations as they are for the time being,” the state Water Quality Control Division said in a statement…
Opponents of the change said it would open the door for existing permitted polluters such as Molson Coors, Suncor and Metro Wastewater to discharge more pollutants if they could show the water was already degraded beyond a chance for improvement. The industries could have asked for the leeway even if they were the ones whose waste had previously damaged streams, such as on the South Platte River through Adams County. In that stretch of river, discharge from Metro Wastewater’s treatment facility makes up most of the stream volume for much of the year.
Groups testifying against the change ranged from Adams County commissioners to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, to Trout Unlimited and Green Latinos. Industrial dischargers, meanwhile, had argued in submitted filings that their use of waters supported important economic interests for communities, and that some heavily used Colorado streams simply won’t support more aquatic life than they already do…
Conservation groups did not get the relief on Friday that they’d sought since a 2020 commission decision declining to upgrade protections for urban stretches of the South Platte River and Clear Creek, which flows past the Molson Coors plant. They said they will continue to seek ways to tighten down on pollution discharges into those waters and give them a chance to recover further.
Clean water advocates say a state commission is preparing to double down on a bad decision last year that failed to protect Clear Creek and the South Platte, and that a broader ruling may endanger more pristine streams.
year ago, the state’s water quality commissioners overruled not only their staff but other state agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife, along with a broad and very angry coalition of conservation groups.
Now, according to the conservation groups, the commission is about to do the same thing again. Only this time, the river advocates say, their proposals threaten every river in the state, weakening a bedrock 33-year-old rule the state uses to implement the federal Clean Water Act.
Colorado industries and city wastewater plants could legally dump more pollution into state rivers if water quality commissioners endorse this year’s plan while also sticking with last year’s changes, conservation groups say.
They argue the actions would mean the potential reversal of intensive efforts to clean city waters flowing past low-income areas already heavily impacted by economic and environmental problems.
They claim it opens the way for water dischargers like Metro Wastewater, Molson Coors and others to seek permits for discharges that would further degrade waters they themselves have already tainted.
“It’s just going to roll the clock backwards on pollution,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for the Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Last year, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division argued to upgrade protection of the South Platte and Clear Creek by saying there is “no evidence that pollution is irreversible,” according to supporting statements filed at the state. The Water Quality Control Commission in June rejected stronger protections for those urbanized stretches of water, including Clear Creek, which flows out of Golden and past the Molson Coors plant on its way to the South Platte.
“I’ve always felt that a strong anti-degradation policy is very important in Colorado,” Water Quality Control Commission Paul Frohardt said during last year’s hearing about the South Platte and Clear Creek. “But I also believe that that policy makes sense and will have broad public support when it’s focused on truly high quality waters.”
Now the commission is taking on a scheduled five-year review of the anti-degradation rule applying statewide. Conservationists fear the commission is leaning toward loosening the strictest level of water quality review for all streams.
The “anti-degradation” rule currently in place says polluters seeking a new or renewed water quality permit must make a compelling argument that worsening the conditions of a stretch of river is an unavoidable part of an important economic development or civic improvement.
They must offer this proof even if the given stretch of water is already better than EPA water quality minimums. The state has until now effectively raised the floor of quality as a stream improves, and says those waters can’t be “degraded” below the new floor.
The Water Quality Control Commission has proposed new rules critics say would weaken that long-standing practice, by allowing dischargers to degrade the overall quality of a stream if even one regulated contaminant in the stream is already high.
Fierce opposition by conservationists
Big water dischargers who opposed the upgrade of urban river protections in written statements last year include Metro Wastewater, whose treated discharge makes up most of the water in the South Platte through Commerce City, and heavy industrial water users like Coors, according to state documents.
Metro Wastewater declined to comment. Molson Coors spokesman Marty Malone said in an emailed statement, “We have an established track record of leading water protection initiatives in our industry. We do not support degradation of water quality.”
Now that commissioners are pushing for a statewide weakening of the anti-degradation rule at their June 14 meeting, environmental advocates from Audubon to Trout Unlimited to Conservation Colorado are combining to mount fierce opposition.
Decades of intense and expensive cleanup efforts on urban streams like the South Platte, including by Metro Wastewater, have improved water quality and given the river a chance at more fish, wildlife and recreation, the coalition says. The state’s job is to keep pushing for even cleaner water, Whiting said, not to clear the way for backsliding…
At last year’s hearing, commission chairman Frohardt mentioned concerns of Metro Wastewater and others that they shouldn’t be responsible for further cleaning up river sections like the urban South Platte, because the waters are unlikely to ever support a major improvement in fish and wildlife beyond what they’ve recently achieved…
State officials said Thursday they are writing alternate versions of the change that they hope will satisfy concerns of the conservation groups. The commissioners will hear the various proposals and arguments about them in their June 14 meeting…
State officials have struggled, though, to explain why the regulations need to be changed. Clarifying the rules, Oeth said, will help establish how Colorado rivers got to their current water condition, and “to provide more clear direction to the commission about how to apply that past when they’re considering the specific example of segments in the future.”
The conservation alliance said the draft alternatives are also unacceptable unless they come with much stronger language guaranteeing the state will include economic justice concerns, and the voices of impacted neighborhoods, when considering controversial water discharge permits.
Clear Creek, Standley Lake watersheds including the Standley Lake Canal Zone via the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation.
The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Water pollution concerns have prompted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to issue separate notices to two developers in Grand County.
In Kremmling, Blue Valley Ranch received notice dated April 13 for allegedly failing to submit monitor data for its wastewater treatment plant since December 2019. For that violation, Blue Valley Ranch faces a $3,000 fine.
At the Grand Park development in Fraser, a state representative inspected the Elk Creek Condos, the Meadows and a storage facility in early April and found the facilities were discharging “sediment-laden stormwater” into Elk Creek and the Fraser River.
In the report, the inspector noted there were no control measures around multiple locations at the Elk Creek Condos and the Meadows that allowed stormwater discharges or increased the potential for them…
Altogether, regulators found three sites they believed were operating in violation of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, its regulations or a discharge permit.
In addition, based on inspections in September 2019 and August 2020, Elk Creek Condos and the Meadows were found to have incomplete stormwater management plans, multiple stormwater control measure concerns and incomplete inspection records. The storage facility on Old Victory Road is alleged to not have a discharge permit.
The notices alleged that “Grand Park Development failed to implement, select, design, install, and maintain control measures in accordance with good engineering, hydrologic, and pollution control practices to minimize the discharge of pollutants from all potential pollutant sources.”
The state also issued a notice of violation for the Mill Avenue apartments for starting construction without a discharge permit, but Lipscomb said state officials did so by mistake. The project had a permit under the Grand Park name before it was updated later with the Byers Peak Properties, according to permit documents provided by Grand Park.
Lipscomb said he expects that all of the notices will be addressed without consequence. Grand Park has 30 days from April 20, when the notices were issued, to respond to each alleged violation. A response has already been sent regarding the Mill Apartments.
If the state rejects the developer’s responses, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could impose up to $10,000 per day in penalties. The state could also require Grand Park to hire a consultant to ensure compliance.
The notices state that the CDPHE investigation is ongoing and may supplement the notice with additional violations and required further actions.
CDPHE also issued a notice of violation to Blue Valley Ranch for failing to submit monitoring data for its wastewater treatment plant since December 2019, and the ranch is required to begin submitting the monitoring data for the treatment plant.
The notice received by Blue Valley Ranch adds that the CDPHE investigation is ongoing and may supplement the notice with further violations and required actions.
Like Grand Park, Blue Valley Ranch has 30 days to respond. Blue Valley Ranch representatives did not return the newspapers’ requests for comment.
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.