PUBLISHED: September 10, 2019 at 6:00 am | UPDATED: September 10, 2019 at 9:16 am
Groundwater tests over the past year have detected high levels of toxic “forever chemicals” across the Denver metro area, contamination that’s both wider and more severe than previously known.
The discovery of these fluorochemicals, known as PFAS, at Buckley Air Force Base, along Sand Creek and at the Suncor oil refinery — as well as at new sites west of Boulder and around Colorado Springs — compelled state health officials this month to ramp up Colorado’s response.
Tests have measured PFAS contamination of groundwater in metro Denver at levels up to 2,928 times higher than a federal health advisory limit, officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told The Denver Post.
Beyond Denver, recent tests detected elevated levels of PFAS — often linked to the use of firefighting foam — at a second firehouse west of Boulder and at three more military facilities near Colorado Springs, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, where contamination up to 1,000 times higher than the health limit has been measured in the Monument Creek watershed upslope of the city.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a national regulatory limit for PFAS despite growing evidence of water contamination nationwide and scientific studies linking fluorochemicals to cancers and problems during pregnancy.
Colorado officials estimated more than 100,000 residents have relied on public drinking water systems where elevated PFAS levels have been detected in source wells — more people than in any other state.
And more residents may be exposed as PFAS spreads through groundwater to private wells. U.S. Air Force and Suncor crews have been visiting homes near known hot spots, scrambling to sort out how many of at least 400 registered private wells regularly are used for drinking water.
“My top priority is to break the chain of exposure. Find where it is. Stop people from ingesting it,” said John Putnam, the state health department’s director of environmental programs.
“What really worries me is what is flowing down the Sand Creek corridor into the South Platte River? Is there a plume? How far does it go? Where is this stuff going? … What we can do is find it and stop it. That may be the best we can do.”
Colorado’s emerging action plan would:
Boost state capacity for testing water. Currently, samples must be sent out of state. Collecting water, sending it to one of the few EPA-certified labs nationwide and analyzing it for PFAS costs more than $400 per sample. Testing difficulties delayed Colorado’s response under former Gov. John Hickenlooper after news reports in 2016 revealed contamination south of Colorado Springs.
Set a state-level limit for PFAS that bolsters the health department’s authority to compel polluters to test and clean up contaminated groundwater, soil and creeks.
Begin a state process for establishing a regulatory “maximum contaminant level” for PFAS that water quality inspectors could enforce.
Implement the new state law that requires fire departments to provide health officials lists of chemicals they use to fight fuel fires. The law also prohibits fire department spraying of PFAS during training.
Support small utilities in efforts to test for and remove PFAS from public drinking water systems.
Control the use of firefighting foam at Colorado airports. The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports seeking safety certification to use foam containing PFAS, and to test this foam once a year by spraying it from a firefighting vehicle into a container. That foam often hits soil and spreads into groundwater and streams. State transportation officials last week announced they’ll provide $400,000 to help airports obtain specialized testing and foam-catching equipment.
“Clean drinking water is a critical component of public health, and we take seriously any threat to drinking water,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the state health department. “It’s important that we find any sources of contamination and make sure every Coloradan has safe water to drink.”
No federal PFAS standard — yet
Around the industrialized world, fluorochemicals rank among the most problematic in an expanding multitude of unregulated toxic “emerging contaminants” detected in drinking water, soil and groundwater.
Foam that contains PFAS for putting out petroleum fuel fires. Water doesn’t work as well when hydrocarbons burn.
But stepped-up testing in Colorado eventually must target non-military sites, and firehouses statewide, along with oil and gas industry sites in Weld County where company crews carry AFFF for dealing with fires and explosions, Putnam said. “We’re going to need to do that.”
Colorado officials over the past month prepared their action plan in part because EPA efforts to address PFAS have lagged. There’s no federal standard other than the non-binding health advisory limit for PFAS, a family of more than a thousand chemicals characterized by a carbon-fluorine molecular bond. This molecular structure renders PFAS chemicals difficult to remove once they spread into water or are ingested by people and animals.
EPA officials have said they’ll consider a standard for two PFAS chemicals called PFOA and PFOS. Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA every five years assesses the latest scientific studies for 30 new chemicals.
Scientific researchers have found that PFAS can cause kidney disease and other cancer and developmental problems. A California study found elevated levels in the blood of pregnant women.
In Colorado, residents south of Colorado Springs have absorbed heavy PFAS levels in their blood, according to initial testing by a University of Colorado Health Sciences Center team. More blood tests are planned, possibly with federal support, after the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry designated Colorado as one of 10 hot spots nationwide.
“We advise people who have untested private wells in areas of concern… to consider other sources of water for drinking and cooking until the water is tested,” state toxicologist Kristy Richardson said. “This is especially important for women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or breastfeeding, and infants who are bottle-fed.”
People who have been exposed to PFAS and are worried about health impacts should talk to their doctor, Richardson said. But blood tests can’t tell if PFAS caused a particular health problem. Testing can only show that a person has been exposed to PFAS.
“Most people in the U.S. have one or more specific PFAS in their blood,” Richardson said.
Colorado residents who relied for years on public drinking water that may have been tainted lament that they cannot easily afford blood tests and that, in some cases, irreversible harm is done — before water utilities in recent years detected contamination, shut off wells, diluted supplies and purchased alternative water.
In the legal battles targeting companies that made or used PFAS, proving direct causation of harm has been hard to prove. PFAS can be ingested from multiple sources, including consumer products such as fast-food wrappers, dental floss and household stain-resistant coatings on carpets and upholstery.
In north metro Denver at the Suncor refinery, company testing of 24 wells in October 2018, and again in April and May, found elevated levels of two prevalent PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. The combined concentrations measured as high as 10,340 parts per trillion, state officials said. That’s 147 times higher than the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion health advisory limit.
Some of the PFAS contaminating Suncor’s property may have spread in from the east along Sand Creek in groundwater, state health officials said. Those PFAS chemicals now likely are spreading from Sand Creek into the South Platte, the officials said. And they have ordered Suncor to conduct more tests of river water and groundwater.
Suncor spokesman Michael Lawrence acknowledged PFAS contamination of water at the refinery and “in treated groundwater that is discharged from our outfall.”
“Suncor believes the presence of PFOS/PFOA at the Commerce City refinery is due to the historical use of Class B firefighting foam, typical for an industrial site,” Lawrence said in an emailed statement sent to The Post. “Suncor is continuing to work with CDPHE on this matter, including potential testing of locations adjacent to the refinery.”
At Buckley Air Force Base, PFAS contamination of groundwater has been measured as high as 205,000 parts per trillion, state officials said, referring to Air Force data. More tests are planned, including off-base tests in surrounding neighborhoods, where residents may be exposed.
More than 50,000 residents in north metro Denver, including Commerce City, previously relied on water from the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District. Last year, district officials shut down three municipal wells and diluted drinking water supplies after PFAS was detected. This year, state health teams collected 15 groundwater and five surface water samples in the South Adams service area. Tests found PFOA and PFOS levels up to 427 parts per trillion, six times higher than the health advisory limit.
West of Boulder, recent tests found PFAS contamination at a Boulder Mountain Fire station near the Pine Brook Hills neighborhood. This is the second fire department west of Boulder where chemicals from firefighting foam spread into groundwater.
And around Colorado Springs, elevated PFAS has been detected at Fort Carson and the Schriever Air Force Base, Putnam said.
Military officials for more than three years have been tracking the spread of PFAS southward from Peterson Air Force Base and the adjacent municipal airport — chemicals that contaminated public drinking water wells in Widefield, Fountain, Security and other communities in the Fountain Creek watershed. Around 70,000 people south of Colorado Springs in the past may have relied on public drinking water systems later found to be contaminated. Others relied on private wells where tests show water was tainted. Blood-testing has confirmed elevated PFAS levels in residents, including young women.
Now amid evidence of wider PFAS contamination in a second watershed north and upslope of Colorado Springs, U.S. military contractors working with the Army Corps of Engineers are building new water-cleaning facilities south of the city — to try to purge PFAS from public water supplies drawn from contaminated municipal wells.
A $22 million plant for Security, to be connected by pipelines to 24 municipal wells, will deploy an ion exchange process to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water at the rate of 6,800 gallons a minute, military officials said.
The Air Force embarked on this project “as part of our priority to restore health and safety,” Peterson Air Force Base spokesman Stephen Brady said. Security’s plant is on schedule to start working by December 2020, he said.
Security had filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for money spent to purchase alternative surface water from Pueblo Reservoir. “It’s not clear if that was connected” to the construction of this water plant, Security Water and Sanitation District manager Roy Heald said. The latest water test results “show that this issue is growing by the day,” Heald said.
At the U.S. Air Force Academy, tests conducted in 2018 and 2019 found elevated PFAS in groundwater, surface water and soil “stemming from past firefighting activities,” Air Force spokesman Mike Kucharek said.
The combined levels of PFOA and PFOS measured as high as 72,000 parts per trillion, Kucharek said. And last week Air Force crews went door-to-door south of the academy in the Woodmen Valley neighborhood, trying to verify which residents may be using the 200 registered wells in the area for drinking water, Kucharek said.