Once a symbol of American ingenuity, PFAS were originally conceived as wonder chemicals that could resist stains, repel water, extinguish horrific oil-based fires, and keep eggs from sticking to the pan. Today, we know them as a Frankenstein-like invention, zombie chemicals that will not die.
Chemists created thousands of such compounds by bonding carbon to fluorine in chemical chains, forging one of the strongest bonds ever discovered. Now they have been found across the planet—even in the blood of arctic foxes and polar bears. Public health studies found PFAS in the blood of about 95 percent of Americans. While the health impact of low levels of exposure is less clear, the chemicals are linked to liver, thyroid, and immune effects, cancer, and low birth weight. It will take billions of dollars—and yet more engineering prowess—to remove PFAS from drinking water and the environment. The task seems bleak, even as the US Department of Defense prepares to spend more than $2 billion on cleaning up PFAS on its bases. Firefighting training sites, airports, and industrial sites are also big contributors.
On Friday, the US House of Representatives passed the PFAS Action Act, which would require the EPA to set drinking water limits for two PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) and to designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund cleanup program. Its path forward is uncertain. Even if the Senate passes the measure, the Trump administration has called its provisions “problematic and unreasonable” and threatened a veto.
But here’s a shred of optimism: Some new technologies show promise in breaking those ultra-strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which means the compounds known as “forever” chemicals could be removed from at least some groundwater. “I have actually started to feel a little bit of hope,” says Chris Higgins, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines and a PFAS expert. “We’re getting some technologies that seem to be working.”
The most promising approach involves an electrical reaction that looks like lightning striking water. Contaminated water goes through a plasma reactor, where argon gas pushes the PFAS compounds to the surface. Electrodes above and below the surface generate plasma—a highly reactive gas made up of positive ions and free electrons—that interacts with the PFAS and breaks the carbon-fluorine bonds.
“Our goal is to completely destroy the compound and not just transfer it from one phase to another,” says Michelle Crimi, an environmental engineer at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, who works on emerging technology to remediate PFAS. The plasma reactor technique was developed by her colleagues Selma Mededovic, a chemical engineer, and Tom Holsen, an environmental engineer.
Crimi is also using ultrasound waves to create cavities—essentially holes—in the water. When they collapse, they instigate physical and chemical reactions that break apart the PFAS chains. Other researchers are working on electrochemical techniques and even soil bacteria that may metabolize PFAS.
Click here to read the newsletter from the Fountain Creek Watershed & Flood Control District. Here’s an excerpt:
UCCS Values Relationship with Fountain Creek District
Contributed by: Kimberly Reeves, UCCS
More than 100 volunteers from the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs (UCCS) participated in Colorado Springs’ sixth annual Creek Week, working to clear the Templeton Gap Floodway of 40 bags of trash, one and a half grocery carts, and a bicycle wheel.
The District’s Creek Week events raise awareness about the Fountain Creek watershed, by educating volunteers about Colorado’s waterways while clearing litter and debris from the 75-mile long Fountain Creek and 927 square-mile watershed that drains into the Arkansas River. UCCS’ Office of Sustainability has championed efforts to promote events on and around campus since the inaugural event in 2014.
This collaborative effort of private companies, city and county organizations, and non-profits has broadened the reach for our campus community by using resources from all partners to ensure we are communicating the same message to our circles of influence. The connection for students to volunteer through opportunities that support our surrounding community allows them to strengthen their civic engagement and development as world citizens. Creek Week provides a platform to talk about the bigger picture of community members across our watershed from Palmer Lake to Pueblo, which is all supporting healthy waterways through volunteerism.
The past two years, Creek Week has increased its efforts from volunteer clean-up events to involve citizen scientist opportunities, which engaged faculty from UCCS to incorporate these opportunities into their courses. This ability to use the surrounding ecosystem as a place to conduct research benefits our students in not only experiential learning, but also the City of Colorado Springs because our students are investing their time to strengthen our community.
The UCCS community asks for Creek Week dates year-round. It has become a positive expectation that our universities invest in our broader community and provides opportunities to make an impact one clean-up at a time.
From El Paso County via The Colorado Springs Business Journal:
El Paso County is asking business owners and residents to give input for its new master plan in an online survey.
The survey covers similar ground to topics discussed at a visioning workshop held Dec. 11. Nearly 100 residents participated, and their input will be incorporated as the Planning Department finishes up the master plan development process.
Those who were unable to attend the workshop can provide feedback that will be considered as the county continues to develop the master plan.
The county started developing the master plan early this year, in what’s expected to be a two-year process. The Planning Department expects to begin implementing the master plan at the end of 2020.
The planning department, along with master plan consultant Houseal-Lavigne Associates, presented an Existing Conditions Report to the Board of County Commissioners at their meeting on Dec. 12.
Comprised of public input and statistical analysis, the 70-page report is a summary of current conditions in the county and a snapshot of county life as it stands today.
It covers a multitude of topics including zoning, development, transportation, water, military bases, recreation and tourism, community health and sustainability.
According to the county, the report will be instrumental as it develops the Whole County Master Plan.
“Finalizing the Existing Conditions Report is the first step toward understanding where the county is today, and it will serve as a bridge to the future,” Planning and Community Development Executive Director Craig Dossey said in a news release.
“The report gives us a strong foundation of understanding pertaining to the good, the bad and the ugly in the county, and provides a solid starting point as we move forward.”
“At the very least, the report gives residents a good idea of all the moving parts that are going into the master plan process,” John Houseal, principal at Houseal-Lavigne, said in a news release. “You won’t find another document with such extensive content relating to the current state of El Paso County.”
The number of places where the U.S. military spilled or suspects it discharged perfluorinated compounds has grown, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, but they did not say where or how many sites are under investigation for possible contamination.
The Department of Defense previously identified 401 sites on active and former military bases where the compounds — perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOS and PFOA — were released or a suspected discharge occurred.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon said Wednesday that continued Department of Defense efforts to identify locations with potentially harmful levels of chemicals uncovered more sites, namely National Guard facilities.
He said the department will name the sites when it has verified the number and locations.
“As part of this process, we think there are probably more installations, and I’m not ready to tell you what that number is, but we found that we under-counted,” McMahon told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
The chemicals, which are used in firefighting foams to battle aircraft and ship fires and also found in household items such as non-stick cookware, stain repellents and food wrappers, have been linked to some types of cancer and birth defects.
In July, Defense Secretary Mark Esper created a task force to determine the extent of the contamination and potential health risks to military personnel and families posed by the chemicals, which fall under a family of compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The task force also is charged with finding alternatives to PFAS-free firefighting foams.
The group is expected to release an interim report on its findings this month. Originally, the final report was due by January, but Esper shortened the timeline for completion from 180 days to 120, and now, McMahon said, the goal is to release an interim report that will be an “accurate picture of the multitude of things we are doing.” With McMahon retiring from the Department of Defense on Friday, it’s unknown whether there will be a final report.
“I don’t know what will happen after 120 days, whether the task force continues to go or if it stands down. It’s irrelevant to me because the focus is on doing what’s right for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and their families and the communities. We are going to be just as aggressive,” McMahon said.
The Department of Defense established a new website Tuesday that focuses on its work on PFAS and includes congressional reports and other DoD initiatives addressing the investigation and cleanup.
The move comes the week that a movie about PFAS, “Dark Waters,” premiers. The film tells the story of attorney Robert Bilott’s 20-year fight against DuPont, one of the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals. On Tuesday, the movie’s star, Mark Ruffalo, testified before Congress about the dangers of these chemicals.
They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down, and build up in blood and tissues if absorbed.
“It’s time to regulate PFAS chemicals,” Ruffalo told members of the House Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee. “It’s time to end industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, it’s time to end needless uses of PFAS in everyday products like food packaging, it’s time to finally filter PFAS out of drinking water and it’s time to clean up legacy PFAS contamination, especially at our military bases.”
Peterson is one of the locations where on-base and community water sources tested significantly above the EPA’s recommended PFAS or PFOA exposure limit of 70 parts per trillion.
“Colorado Health Department investigators found that lung, bladder and kidney cancer rates are significantly higher than expected in the same areas of the PFAS water contamination, yet the state has never offered contaminated residents medical monitoring or PFAS blood level tests,” said Favors, who respresented the Fountain Valley (Colorado) Clean Water Coalition.
Dozens of PFAS compounds are used in medical devices, pharmaceuticals and laboratory supplies. As such, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the subcommittee’s ranking member, said, caution should be taken when considering “sweeping action” against an entire class of substances.
“We should be careful of taking actions that have the potential to affect vast swaths of the economy, including hospitals and other [industries] that use lifesaving products made from PFAS compounds,” Comer said during the hearing.
Of the 401 sites named by the Defense Department as having a known or suspected discharge of PFAS, 36 on-base locations had contaminated drinking water and more than 90 had either off-base drinking water or groundwater contamination at levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s accepted threshold.
In cases where the Defense Department found drinking water supplies exceeding the 70 parts per trillion recommendation, the services supplied bottled water and in-home water filtration systems to ensure water quality.
“In some places, we had very marginal levels, so part of this is ‘You don’t have to worry about it.’ But in some places, we have levels that are higher … and we’ve reacted to that,” McMahon said.
Advocacy groups say that no amount of PFAS is safe; the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that has been sounding the alarm on the problem, says that 1 part per trillion is the maximum safe level, based on independent studies.
The EPA has released a draft proposing that the screening level of a contaminated site that would trigger further investigation of PFOS and PFOA should be 40 parts per trillion individually, and for remediation, 70 parts per trillion, combined, in groundwater.
The DoD follows the EPA’s current recommendation of 70 parts per trillion.
McMahon said this week that installation commanders can expect to receive letters instructing them to begin a dialogue, if they have not already done so, with their local communities on the DoD’s PFAS investigation, its findings and any clean up efforts within their communities, according to McMahon.
“One of the things we haven’t done real well is our transparency and activity in getting the message out,” McMahon said. I want our installation commanders to go talk to the community.”
The Environmental Working Group maintains a map as well as lists of the military installations and sites with known PFAS contamination. According to EWG, of the 100 most contaminated sites, 64 had groundwater contamination exceeding 100,000 parts per trillion. The highest known contamination was seen at the former England Air Force Base, near Alexandria, Louisiana, that measured 201.7 million parts per trillion of a PFAS chemical known as PFHxS.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
The Future of Fountain Creek: Frost Ranch Owner Takes the Long View
Here in the Pikes Peak region, many of us play in the Fountain Creek Watershed, whether we’re aware of it or not. We might hike or ride our bikes along Fountain Creek and its tributaries. We might fish or paddle our kayak in the creeks or lakes. But most of us don’t work the land – and we rarely witness Fountain Creek’s tempestuous nature.
But Jay Frost, third-generation owner of Frost Ranch south of Fountain, Colorado, has endured the creek’s unruly temperament for decades. “I’ve been watching the creek all my life,” he says. “We make a living here. We try to deal with its unpredictable nature.”
Frost Ranch has deep roots in local ranching and farming traditions. The Frost family raises grass-fed and grass-finished lamb and beef in its irrigated meadows. They grow non-certified organic vegetables and grass/alfalfa hay in the irrigated parts of the farm. The Frost family takes pride in growing healthy, sustainable food. The lamb and beef are free of hormones, antibiotics, and corn; fields are never sprayed; and vegetable planting, irrigating, weeding, and harvesting are all done using holistic and traditional methods.
Fountain Creek’s erosion and sedimentation issues are vexing. How does this impact Frost Ranch?
“The creek is flashy,” Jay says. “If there’s a little sniffle of rain in Colorado Springs, here comes the water! We can go from a base flow of 60 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 22,000 cfs. When the water calms down, all the sediment drops. The sediment load in Fountain Creek is crazy!”
Simultaneously, the ranch is literally losing property from erosion. “We have a big cut bank – we refer to it as the Great Wall,” Jay notes. “It’s 60 feet deep and at least a quarter of a mile long. It’s sloughing off soil all the time.”
Jay adds that floodwater can wash away fences and irrigation pipes, and sedimentation can damage irrigation infrastructure. The Frost family no longer grazes livestock near the creek due to the invasion of non-native plants. “Parts of the creek are choked with trees and exotic species like salt cedar [tamarisk] and Russian olive trees,” he says. “You can’t fence the dang thing. It’s just gnarly.”
That’s why, nearly three decades ago, Jay helped to form a coalition to begin focusing on the Fountain Creek Watershed – and begin addressing its many issues regarding flooding, erosion, and sedimentation.
This early initiative helped to pave the way for the formation of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control & Greenway District. Soon after the District was formed, Frost Ranch collaborated with District engineers to address a serious erosion issue on the ranch. According to the Project Summary, the lack of vegetation along approximately 400 feet of the creek’s bank allowed soil to be readily removed during high-flow events, resulting in flood damage, bank erosion, and increased downstream sedimentation.
Unfortunately, the repair project didn’t hold – a flooding incident washed it away. But Jay isn’t completely surprised, due to the turbulent nature of the creek. “Fountain Creek is normally a dribble, but it’s prone to flooding,” he says. “It can be wilder than hell when it’s really rolling.”
A Comprehensive Solution is the Best Way Forward
When it comes to Fountain Creek, Jay Frost takes the long view. “I believe we can find a comprehensive solution – a silver bullet – that will address the entire Fountain Creek Watershed,” he says. “A comprehensive solution – an absolutely engineered approach – is always better than just taking a stab at the issues, project by project.”
This is one of the benefits of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, which is addressing the watershed comprehensively. In fact, since 2009, the District has planned and/or implemented more than a dozen construction projects to address critical erosion and sedimentation issues throughout the watershed. Various project aspects involve restoring the main channel, realigning the creek, stabilizing steep cut banks, revegetating, protecting wetlands, and restoring riparian habitat. At the end of the day, if Fountain Creek has less erosion, less sedimentation, better quality and accessible water, we all benefit.
I n the conversation with Jay, it was noted that ranchers and farmers are on the front lines of water issues, fighting the good fight. “Yeah,” Jay replies, “but it’s so worth it.”
Local environmental activists and state lawmakers gathered near Colorado Springs on Tuesday to call for more federal support in cleaning up toxic PFAS chemical contamination near some of the state’s military bases, most recently including the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Firefighting foams used regularly on military bases for decades leached chemicals into local groundwater supplies. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory warning of a connection between PFAS and certain types of cancer.
The military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on cleanup nationwide, including $50 million at Peterson Air Force Base alone.
But speakers at the event organized by the nonprofit Environment Colorado said much more funding is still needed.
Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition founder Liz Rosenbaum urged Colorado’s congressional delegation to fight for more PFAS cleanup funds in next year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
“We have done everything that we can possibly do from the local level, from our city, the county and the state,” Rosenbaum said. “This is a national contamination because it has been done by the department of defense. So we have to look to Congress and our elected officials in D.C.”
Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn sits on the conference committee which is working out differences between Senate and House versions of the NDAA. Lamborn’s office did not send a representative to the press conference.
Republican state Sen. Dennis Hisey said he doesn’t think it matters where the money comes from, as long as Congressional leaders work to raise awareness of how much is left to do in cleaning up these so-called “forever chemicals.”