Colorado health officials, citing rise of “forever chemicals” in water, vow to increase oversight

Colorado public health officials are set to begin regulating one of the most controversial sets of cancer-linked chemicals in water supplies later this year, citing increasing evidence of the compounds around the state.

These so-called “forever chemicals” are used in dozens of common household products from Teflon to Scotchgard, plus many industrial products including firefighting foam.

Colorado joins more than a dozen other states nationwide in moving to set standards, frustrated at what they say is a painfully slow response by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the chemicals.

“We’re feeling concern about the lack of solid guidance and regulatory structures,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The compounds, polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), have been found in concerning quantities in several areas. In recent months, they have been found at high levels at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. The state is also examining their presence around the SunCor Refinery in Commerce City, according to Putnam.

But the highest profile contamination has occurred in the aquifer that serves the communities of Fountain, Security and Widefield near Colorado Springs. The contamination was significant enough that in 2016, when EPA strengthened its health advisory level for the chemicals to 70 parts per trillion (ppt) from 400 ppt, each of these small communities was forced to shut down their drinking water systems and find alternate supplies while their treatment plants were upgraded. Seventy ppt is equal to one drop of detergent in enough water to fill a line of railroad cars 10 miles long, according to the CDPHE.

The U.S. Air Force has since acknowledged responsibility for the contamination due to the use of firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs. It is helping pay for the multi-million dollar cleanup and construction of new water treatment plants capable of taking the contaminants out of the water.

The contaminants have also been found in well water at two Sugar Loaf Fire Protection District Stations in western Boulder County and in the water supplies of the South Adams Water and Sanitation District, which serves parts of north metro Denver and Brighton.

And many believe these occurrences are only the beginning.

Across the country the issue is stirring concern, with public health advocates saying the EPA is moving too slowly and Congress proposing legislation that would speed the process. At the same time at least 17 states have moved to impose their own regulations. The EPA has said it will begin the standard-setting process at the end of the year. EPA Region 8 spokesman Rich Mylott said the agency was supportive of Colorado’s efforts to boost oversight of the PFAS compounds even as it pursued its own regulatory process.

“EPA has made PFAS a national priority and is taking a proactive approach to addressing these compounds across our programs,” Mylott said via email.

A major concern is that it’s really not clear yet what levels of these contaminants can be considered safe in drinking water, in part because they come in thousands of different forms. Some communities, including Fountain, have opted to take the safest approach possible by voluntarily implementing treatment processes that take the contaminants down to non-detectable levels.

Large water utilities are pushing hard for a go-slow approach to the problem. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) represents 4,300 water utilities. The trade group is concerned that its members may have to shoulder too much of the liability and the staggering costs of removing these chemicals from water supplies if and when new standards are set.

The AWWA maintains that much more research needs to be done to determine where the chemicals exist, which pose the most serious threats to human health, and which treatment methods are most effective for removing them from drinking water.

“Until this thing became a political issue, the EPA studies had shown that [the chemicals] had only occurred in 1.3 percent of public drinking water systems,” said Tracy Mehan, Washington, D.C.-based executive director of government affairs for the AWWA. “And that normally wouldn’t indicate the need for a national primary drinking water standard,” he said.

Still the U.S. Department of Defense has reported that some 400 of its sites may be contaminated and that it will cost billions of dollars to cleanup the sites and install treatment systems. Earlier this year, the DOD lobbied the EPA to keep the cleanup standard lower, and therefore less expensive, than public health advocates believe is safe.

“We’re in the eye of the storm,” Mehan said. “We’re not saying they shouldn’t [be regulated], we’re saying let’s go through the right process. We’re not necessarily opposed to new mandatory contaminant levels [MCLs] for specific contaminants. We really don’t know much about this particular family of chemicals and we want to get it right.”

In Boulder County, health officials continue to monitor the wells at and near the Sugar Loaf Fire District stations to track whether the contamination is increasing, decreasing, or possibly even moving through the groundwater. Joe Malinowski, environmental health division manager at the Boulder County Health Department, said he supports Colorado’s move to set its own regulations because he believes new hot spots will be uncovered and the state will need better tools to protect drinking water. “We’re going to continue to see more of this,” he said.

Roy Heald, manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts southeast of Colorado Springs, isn’t convinced that state action is a good idea. He worries that imposing new standards on small, cash-poor water districts won’t solve the problem. His tiny district mounted a lightning-fast response to the crisis back in 2016, paying $6 million from its reserve fund to build a new pipeline so that it could deliver uncontaminated water purchased from Colorado Springs Utilities to its customers. The U.S. Air Force has helped cover some of those costs.

“But we were lucky,” Heald said. “We had a reserve account. A lot of other small communities don’t.

“What would have helped us in 2016 wasn’t a regulation. It was funding and good science. That is what we really needed and that continues to be the case,” he said.

Still, CDPHE’s Putnam said enough new evidence of contamination has surfaced in Colorado to warrant action on the state’s part.

“You pull all of that together and it’s clear that we need to take that next step,” Putnam said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

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.

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