At a two-day forum held by the EPA in Colorado Springs, local water officials, state health representatives, and residents of El Paso County called on the agency to take action to regulate a group of potentially toxic chemicals known as PFAS (also called PFCs). The chemicals have been linked to certain cancers and other illnesses, and were detected above safe levels in drinking water in Security, Widefield, and Fountain in 2016. Authorities believe the contamination came from PFAS-containing firefighting foams long used in training exercises at Peterson Air Force base.
The Colorado Springs meeting was the third of four community forums scheduled across the country this summer, each hosted by the EPA, to collect feedback from people on the ground dealing with PFAS contamination.
“Understanding and addressing emerging contaminants such as PFAS is difficult, but critically important,” explained Doug Benevento, administrator of EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado and other western states. “The experiences and perspectives shared by state and local officials as well as community groups today, in addition to the numerous members of the public, will be invaluable as EPA develops a plan to manage PFAS.”
PFAS contamination is a growing concern among public health and water management professionals nationwide, with at least 40 states experiencing some form of contamination, according to the Environmental Working Group. The EPA says it has identified the issue as a high priority, and is in the process of developing new rules to regulate contamination levels in drinking water.
In May 2016, the EPA released a health advisory regarding PFAS. The advisory said drinking water should have no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals. That health advisory is not enforceable, however, and although Fountain, Security, and Widefield water districts made adjustments to comply, they were not bound to do so and received little assistance in the process. Many in attendance at the forum said that needs to change.
“We need regulatory infrastructure in order to, number one, compel investigation and clean up, but also to promote a more consistent approach to addressing PFAS nationwide,” Tracie White of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told EPA officials Wednesday.
Her concern was echoed by members of the public and by those responsible for managing affected drinking water systems, who urged the EPA to establish a legally-binding Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, for the chemicals.
“Health advisories have the same connotations and effect as maximum contaminant levels, but none of the support that an MCL provides,” said Brandon Bernard, water manager for Widefield Water and Sanitation.
For their part, EPA officials didn’t say whether an MCL would be forthcoming, but said the agency is looking at a range of options to regulate the chemicals, including listing them as “Hazardous Substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, otherwise known as Superfund. Jennifer McLain, deputy director of the agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, said she couldn’t give a timeline for any future regulatory decisions, but stressed that the agency is “moving as quickly as possible.”
Over the course of the two day forum, residents of Security, Widefield, and Fountain also shared their experiences with contamination in the area. Liz Rosenbaum, who has lived in Security and Widefield for 15 years, spoke on behalf of the grassroots group, Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
“We’ve been drinking PFAS-contaminated water since the 1970s, it remains in our bodies for approximately five to eight years, maybe longer,” she said. She said some residents in the area with cancer and other ailments suspect their illnesses could be related to PFAS contamination, though evidence has not yet been produced to make that connection conclusively. She called on officials to provide biomedical monitoring and blood testing for those exposed to the contamination.
“Our community members do not trust what we are reading or hearing, that our water is safe to drink, and the majority of us are still purchasing bottled water,” she added, urging the EPA to establish an MCL of 1 part per trillion.
Molly Miller has lived in Security for 23 years, and said she’s currently battling cancer. In remarks at Tuesday night’s meeting, she too called for biomedical monitoring, saying she’d like to know whether there is any connection between her illness and her drinking water.
“I think it would really present the fight for my health in a different way,” she said, “the fight would get bigger for me, if it was really connected.”
Many community members also said that they feel they’ve been left out of important discussions about the future of their drinking water, and haven’t been treated as stakeholders in the process.
Still, Rosenbaum said the community forum was a good first step, and that she was encouraged by the dialogue that took place. Going forward, she said she hopes the conversation can continue, so that the “community feels more connected in decision making processes” as the EPA and other agencies work to address the issue of PFAS contamination here in El Paso County and nationwide.
The EPA’s fourth PFAS community meeting is scheduled for August 14th in North Carolina.