Contaminated Water at Peterson Air Force Base Released into Sewer System

Oct 19, 2016

Officials at Peterson Air Force Base say 150,000 gallons of water containing perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, were mistakenly discharged into the Colorado Springs sewer system earlier this month. According to a Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson, those PFCs have since made their way into Fountain Creek.

The discharged water was being held in a large water retention tank in the fire training area of the base. Officials say they knew the water contained PFCs from aqueous firefighting foams, and they say the Air Force was working on a plan to safely dispose of it.

Even if they had been able to catch the tainted water, CSU's treatment plant doesn't have the technology to remove perfluorinated compounds from wastewater.

However, sometime between October 5th and October 12th, the tank was emptied into the municipal sewer system in what Air Force officials are calling an "unplanned discharge." The discovery came on October 12th, and base officials notified Colorado Springs Utilities the following day.

Exactly how and why the water was released from the tank is still unknown, but 21st Civil Engineering Squadron Environmental Chief Fred Brooks says discharging the tank is not a simple process.

"I've gone and physically looked in the vault. There's at least two valves that have to be turned on, and the electrical control for this is above ground and separate from that, so it's at least a three-step process," explains Brooks.

Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson Steve Berry says that by the time CSU learned of the discharge, the PFC-containing water had already passed through the city's wastewater collection system and treatment plant and been deposited in Fountain Creek.

"There was nothing that we could do at that point," he says. Berry points out that even if they had been able to catch the tainted water, CSU's treatment plant doesn't have the technology to remove perfluorinated compounds from wastewater. 

Concern over PFC contamination has been high in southern Colorado since May, when residents of Security, Widefield and Fountain learned that their drinking water contained potentially unsafe levels of the chemicals. PFC exposure has been linked to negative health effects including low infant birth weight, high cholesterol, certain cancers, liver problems, and other issues. Though an investigation into the matter is ongoing, many people have pointed to fire foams containing PFCs once used at Peterson Air Force Base as the likely source of the contamination.

The retention tank where the PFC-containing water was held can be seen from the west entrance of Peterson Air Force Base. The white, dome-shaped tank holds 150,000 gallons of water.

It's not clear whether the PFCs released this month will end up in southern Colorado drinking water supplies anytime soon. For his part, Steve Berry stressed that the discharge "definitely did not impact Colorado Springs Utilities drinking water in any way," adding that Colorado Springs "does not get drinking water from that section of Fountain Creek."

Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District, says that he doubts drinking water in downstream communities will be affected. Water from Fountain Creek is primarily used for agriculture, explains Small, "and once it's used for agriculture, as it gets downstream, it's diluted through the soils. Personally, I don't think it's going to be a big issue."

The Air Force is currently investigating the cause of the discharge, and authorities at Peterson Air Force Base say they're working to determine the levels of PFC contamination in the released water. In a press release, Peterson Air Force Base officials also pointed to a $4.3 million effort currently underway to remove PFCs from drinking water in Security, Widefield, and Fountain. They say they are "confident that these ongoing mitigation strategies are sufficient to address any potential contamination from the discharge."