In March, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked the Department of Defense for details about funding diverted from other projects to pay for cleanup and testing for PFAS, a toxic group of man-made chemicals used in military firefighting foam.
On June 5, the DoD responded to Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware by acknowledging that the Air Force had diverted $66.6 million from other projects to pay for PFAS-related efforts. The Army and Navy did not have to divert any funding, according to the DoD’s letter.
Many of the projects put on hold involved cleaning up other pollution at former Air Force sites…
The funding diverted from those and other projects paid for PFAS testing at 16 former Air Force installations, along with groundwater and drinking water treatment for communities around Wurtsmith, Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire and March Air Reserve Base in California.
“Congress needs to ensure that the Department of Defense has the resources needed to fully address its millions of dollars—perhaps billions of dollars—in liabilities related to the DOD-related PFAS contamination in our communities,” Sen. Carper said in a statement following the announcement. “Otherwise, the DOD will just keep robbing Peter to pay Paul by putting important projects on standby and stretching budgets to clean up PFAS contamination.”
Lawmakers are looking to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, which funds the Department of Defense, to procure more funding for PFAS testing and cleanup.
The bill already requires the DoD to phase out all firefighting foam that contains PFAS by 2023. While military installations including Peterson Air Force Base have switched to a version thought to be safer, and have stopped using the foam for training purposes, the military continues to use foam with “short-chain” PFAS chemicals, thought to be safer for public health and the environment.
On June 13, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, introduced an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that would reimburse water districts (including those in Security-Widefield and Fountain) for treating and mitigating PFAS in drinking water.
“In the wake of contamination, local water districts around Peterson Air Force Base took the initiative and covered the cleanup costs to ensure the safety of drinking water for residents,” Bennet said in a statement. “This amendment will ensure these districts receive the full reimbursement they deserve.”
A separate amendment filed by a bipartisan group of senators would expand monitoring and testing of PFAS, and set a deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFAS, two types of PFAS chemicals once found in firefighting foam.
Competition for the limited water resources used to be a primary, if not the primary, issue for agriculture in northeastern Colorado.
While quantity is still a major issue, water quality is increasingly important, particularly with deterioration of that quality.
That was apparent at an annual locally led meeting hosted Wednesday in Brush by the Morgan Conservation District…
The Morgan Conservation District works with the Fort Morgan NRCS field office and is a member of the Lower South Platte watershed of Morgan, Centennial, Sedgwick and Haxtun Conservation Districts.
C.W. Scott, team leader for Morgan and Logan County NRCS, was among the leaders of the discussion, as were Madeline Hagen, Morgan district manager, and Todd Wickstrom, district board president.
Groundwater, human consumption and whether water is safe for livestock are all concerns, participants said.
The question is at what point does the quality deteriorate so much that water kills the crops instead of growing them.
With more runoff this year than in recent years, water will have more foreign material in it.
Municipalities such as Wiggins using reverse osmosis are allowed to flush the by-products of that process into the river when the flow in the river is sufficient, participants said, but that is far from the only concern.
Human hormone supplements in the water are on the rise, as are total dissolved solids.
Salt people put on sidewalks and residue from water softeners are also factors.
Perfluorinated compounds, commonly known as PFAS, turned up in levels exceeding recommended federal standards in the aquifer underneath the Air Guard base, said the consultant’s report.
But while the contamination appears to be moving toward city drinking wells on Tucson’s south side, the pollution doesn’t pose any immediate health risk to water users, Tucson Water officials say…
That’s because PFAS pollution already detected on the south side is being routed to a treatment plant that’s cleaning it up, and because the city drinking wells nearest the Air Guard base already are shut down.
The newly discovered contamination was widespread, tainting eight monitoring wells across the base and at least one more well at the base’s northern boundary, the report found. Sampling for the report was done from January through March 2018…
The pollutant concentrations ranged from nearly 70 times the EPA’s recommended health advisory level at a well at the base’s northern boundary, to just above the EPA advisory farther south on the base, said the report.
Another monitoring well contained about 30 times the EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, the consultant’s study found…
Measurable levels of PFAS compounds turned up in soil samples collected on 14 locations on the Guard base, but exceeded recommended health limits only at one of those locations, the report said…
At the same time, Tucson Water officials note that the nearest city wells, lying 1.5 to 2.7 miles northwest of the base, are already out of service because of previously discovered contamination from PFAS, trichloroethylene and 1,4-dioxane.
Polluted water from those wells is being funneled to a south-side treatment plant known as the Tucson Airport Remediation Project.
There, it’s being treated so thoroughly that the compounds are no longer detected as the water leaves the plant to be served to people in the downtown area and just north and south of there…
The ADEQ said it doesn’t have the legal authority to require the Guard base to clean up the contamination on its site.
That’s because the EPA has no formal drinking water limit for PFAS compounds and because Arizona law doesn’t allow the state to have more stringent environmental regulations than the federal government has.
At an Arvada fire station, Polis signed into law House Bill 1279, which bans certain kinds of foam used in firefighting training. Such foam contains so-called “forever chemicals” that have contaminated drinking water in El Paso County and elsewhere…
The foam contaminated Fountain’s water supply, and it has since installed filters to deal with problem…
HB 1279 bans Class B firefighting foams that contain “intentionally added” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. Such chemicals were used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs and have been found in the nearby Widefield aquifer, which serves Security, Widefield and Fountain.
The foam was sprayed on the ground and used in a firefighting training area that was flushed into the Colorado Springs Utilities treatment system, which was ill-equipped to remove the chemicals. The effluent ended up in Fountain Creek, which feeds the Widefield aquifer.
The Air Force since has replaced that foam with a new version that the military says is less toxic, though it still contains perfluorinated chemicals.
In Salida, Polis signed House Bill 1264, which is intended to resolve some of the long-standing problems with the state’s conservation easement program.
Landowners say the Colorado Department of Revenue revoked tax credits awarded to those who entered into conservation easements with land trusts, with more than 800 credits revoked from the 4,000 granted in the program’s first 15 years.
HB 1264 is intended to make the program more transparent, with a warning to landowners that easements are in perpetuity. The bill also requires the Division of Conservation Easements, within the Department of Regulatory Agencies, to set up a committee to determine how to repay those tax credits.
The committee is to hold its first hearing June 25, an addition to the bill made by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.
Legislative leaders in both parties are to appoint the committee members, and lawmakers say they intend to include representatives for those who have been denied tax credits as well as other program critics.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis chose the banks of the Arkansas River in Salida as the ideal location to sign an unprecedented nine bills into law on Monday morning, June 3. The location underscored both the importance of these bills to Colorado’s rural and recreation economies, as well as highlighting Colorado’s growing preference for collaboration to get things done…
SB19-221 – CO Water Conservation Board Construction Fund Project
This bill sponsored by Donovan and Roberts, is focused on the funding of Colorado water conservation board projects, and assigns an appropriation to protect those projects…
SB19-186 – Expand Agricultural Chemical Management Program Protect Surface Water
Another bill sponsored by Donovan, Catlin, Coram and including Rep. Jeni Arndt, seeks to protect Colorado surface water from contamination by the expansion of agriculture chemical management plans.
From the High Country News (Paige Blankenbuehler):
Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals exist in furniture, waterproof makeup and clothing, nonstick cookware, popcorn bags, the foam used to extinguish petroleum fires (which is different from the slurry used across the West to fight wildfires), and countless other items. Known collectively as PFAS, this class of chemicals contains more than 5,000 different compounds that are often called “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down in the environment. PFAS chemicals are an omnipresent, if largely invisible, part of daily life.
Because the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate PFAS chemicals, states are left not only to research and track them, but also to develop regulations to clean up already dangerous levels of pollution. And, according to recent data from the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group, the West isn’t doing a great job.
Bill Walker, with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, says that, by and large, Western states are lagging far behind, not only in PFAS regulations, but also in monitoring. “The scope of this problem is growing — not because our exposure to PFAS chemicals is growing, but because we’re finally becoming aware of the persistence of these compounds in our lives,” said Walker. “Because there is so little action from the EPA on this, addressing this crisis falls to the states.”
People can be exposed to PFAS chemicals through household cooking items, or simply by eating popcorn out of the bag after microwaving it. But the greatest source of concern involves military bases, fire departments and airports, where the chemicals are used for extinguishing petroleum fires. That leaves high levels of PFAS chemicals in close proximity to public drinking-water sources. According to recent data compiled by EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University, 610 areas in 43 states have confirmed PFAS contamination. The researchers estimate that the drinking water of approximately 19 million people is tainted.
Most Western states are already facing the consequences of contamination: Municipal water managers are scrambling to address high PFAS levels in drinking water, even as communities experience their health impacts, such as higher rates of kidney and testicular cancers. Still, very few have passed laws that track or regulate dangerous PFAS levels. “Northeastern states are ahead of most other states in monitoring and tracking this contamination,” said Phil Brown, the project director of Northeastern University’s PFAS monitoring project. “But in reality, if you look for it, you’ll find it most everywhere.”
Industry representatives say that while they support more oversight, a “one-size-fits-all” regulation for the class of chemicals goes too far. On May 22, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public works held a hearing to discuss appropriate legislation for addressing PFAS contamination. PFAS “play a central role in American life and not all are dangerous to public health,” said Kimberly Wise White, a toxicologist for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that advocates for manufacturers of PFAS chemicals. “All PFAS are different; they have different hazard profiles. Some are not water-soluble, for example. It is not scientifically appropriate to regulate as one class.”
Advocates for stronger regulations, however, say that the EPA isn’t doing nearly enough to monitor the problem. And many disagree with White’s suggestion that the chemicals should be regulated on an individual basis, which would allow manufacturers to continue to make money from potentially dangerous chemicals. “The EPA’s current guidelines do not include a commitment to set a drinking water standard, even for a subset of PFAS chemicals that even manufacturers agree are dangerous,” said Suzanne Novak, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy organization.
Meanwhile, ever more Western communities are discovering troubling levels of PFAS in their water. Last month, the water district for the town of Security, Colorado, and the local Pikes Peak Community Foundation filed a $17 million lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense for PFAS contamination from Peterson Air Force Base, near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Shortly after that, the Centers for Disease Control identified the area as part of an upcoming study on the impacts of long-term exposure to high levels of PFAS in drinking water, with research due to begin this fall. New Mexico’s attorney general, too, has sued the U.S. Air Force after confirming PFAS contamination at Lake Holloman, on the westernmost edge of White Sands National Monument.
“PFAS chemicals are one of the most complex groups of pollutants out there,” said Chris Higgins, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, who is researching the effects of exposure in El Paso County. “Once they are in the groundwater, it’s really hard to stop the spread, and treating them is even more difficult.”
Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at email@example.com.
The fields of Sterling, Colo., in May are a dependable trio of colors: yellow with the dried remnants of last year’s harvest; the deep brown of freshly tilled earth; and green from new growth. Another hue mars this palette in places, an unwelcome one: white. The color of salt. To crops, it’s the color of death.
There aren’t many patches of dead land. But there are enough to worry farmers and water officials that the same fate that has felled civilizations could befall cities along the South Platte River: that the land will become too salty to support plant life.
“Salinity is always a concern in agriculture,” said Grady O’Brien, a Fort Collins-based hydrologist who has been tapped to lead a study of salinity along the South Platte this year. Colorado Corn, a group representing farmers in the state, is sponsoring the study, with a $39,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
It’s too soon to tell if salinity is a problem on the South Platte. Preliminary sampling by Colorado Corn in September showed worrying signs. Measures were taken at a dozen points along the river from above Denver to the Colorado state line. As the water flowed downstream, its purity dipped noticeably.
Salt is actually a catch-all term for total dissolved solids, or TDS. TDS can include a number of things other than what the general population knows as salt, sodium chloride. In the world of water, “salt” can be magnesium chloride, uranium, selenium — any minerals, salts, metals, and ions that have dissolved in the water.
In samples taken last year near Waterton Canyon, TDS was measured at 162 parts per trillion. Samples taken near Julesberg, much farther down the river on the Eastern Plains, came in at 1,310 parts per trillion, according to data provided by O’Brien.
“Once the testing got down around Sterling, it was pretty darn toxic in terms of salt,” said Mark Sponsler, chief executive officer of Colorado Corn. “Those numbers gave us enough of a concern to want to do a more in-depth look.”
The full study will review historical datasets from a handful of organizations, including several water districts, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Decades of information should reveal if the South Platte has gotten saltier over time, identify seasonal variations, and uncover potential sources of increased salt.
Salinization is not a new problem; it is as old as civilization itself. What is today Iraq, sometimes called the Cradle of Civilization, was once known as the Fertile Crescent. Centuries of irrigation concentrated salts in the soil to such a degree that nothing would grow.
A study released in early 2018 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 37 percent of drainage basins in the United States have been altered by salinity over the past century.
“The greatest threat to irrigated agriculture in the world is salinization,” said Timothy Gates, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. Gates has worked on the Arkansas River, Colorado’s saltiest, for years.
All water, even rainwater, contains salt. When applied to crops (or urban lawns and gardens), plants absorb the water and leave the salts behind, which accumulate over time. In the modern world, agricultural runoff contributes to salinity, as does the increasing use of de-icing compounds on roads.
But it may be in part state water policies that are driving salinization on the South Platte. As drought-prone Colorado focuses on conservation, water is reused more and more. Each use adds a certain amount of salt to the water it pulls from upstream. And while water quality regulations exist for things like uranium, selenium and nitrogen, there are no guidelines for TDS and their effects on agriculture, O’Brien and Gates said.
When Denver gets its water from mountain snowpacks, it is almost as pure as it can be, O’Brien said, at about 100-200 parts per million of TDS. By the time the city pumps treated wastewater back into the South Platte, it’s closer to 500-600 ppm. (Denver Water and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District declined to confirm TDS levels.)
Downstream of Denver, on its way to Nebraska, the South Platte winds its way past hundreds of miles of roads, farm fields, stockyards, and oil and gas wells. It passes near or through the towns of Brighton, Fort Lupton, Greeley, Fort Morgan, and Brush before it reaches the corn, bean and alfalfa fields of Sterling.
Each city, each wastewater treatment plant, each roadway “keeps adding to that salt load,” O’Brien said. “Salinity is increasing all the way through the basin.”
But Jim McQuarrie, director of strategy and innovation at Metro Wastewater, said wastewater treatment plants can and do improve the quality of the water they treat. For instance, the water Metro puts back into the South Platte has less magnesium and chloride than the water it takes in. “We actually net improve [those] salts.”
McQuarrie said discussions are ongoing about how to improve on all fronts when it comes to salinity: “Wherever there are opportunities for us to avoid unnecessary addition of TDS, we are working on that now.”
By some measures water coming from upstream has improved over the years, said Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District. In his region, nitrates from fertilizers used to cause algae and moss growth in rivers and reservoirs, but the problem has dissipated in recent years.
“With increased regulation on municipal effluent,” said Yahn, referencing the outflow that comes from upstream wastewater treatment plants, “the water quality is better in a lot of ways.”
And despite the few crusty patches of field surrounding Sterling, he said farmers aren’t yet worried, though they are looking forward to what the data has to say.
The study is scheduled to be completed in late October.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.