Colorado communities near Peterson Air Force Base are dealing with something Dayton officials hope never happens here: thousands of people impacted by chemicals tainting water supplies.
The suspected cause of the Colorado water woes: A firefighting foam contaminant used by the base that may have seeped into drinking water wells.
Five states away, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base also used a firefighting foam contaminant — known as polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS — and now Dayton officials worry it could eventually reach the Huffman Dam well field and beyond along the Mad River.
Authorities say the drinking water in Dayton is safe and has not been found in treated water sent to consumers at the tap. But Colorado may provide a cautionary tale. They found the risk to the water supply is real.
Dayton shut down seven drinking water wells last year it had not tested for the contaminant but detected below health advisory levels in sentinel wells between the base and the well field. That action followed Wright-Patterson’s shutdown of two of its own drinking water wells under an Ohio EPA directive. Pumping was resumed last year after the base built a $2.7 million treatment plant.
The city faces a second threat from its own firefighting training center, and two years ago it quietly closed five nearby drinking production wells at the Tait’s Hill well field.
Dealing with water contamination issues are hugely expensive, as those in the regions of Widefield, Fountain and Security in Colorado discovered. Together, about 70,000 people there are impacted by the tainted water.
“There was the time when we went from 40 to 400 phone calls a day,” said Brandon Bernard, Widefield Water and Sanitation District manager. “Our consumer confidence was drastically sinking.”
A common question
Roy E. Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts, said the two questions he hears most often from customers is what’s this going to do to my health and what’s it going to do to my bill?
In his district, which serves about 20,000 customers, consumers received a 15 percent water hike this spring and more might be coming, Heald said.
“If we don’t get any help, there will be additional rate increases beyond what the board has approved,” he said.
The health effects are unknown as yet. A two-year health study of about 200 residents is underway to determine if the water contamination levels caused any health problems, according to the Associated Press. The University of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines are collaborating on the study.
Even at low levels, the contaminant may pose a health threat as it accumulates in the body, said Michael Murry, a National Wildlife Federation scientist.
“One of the big concerns is obviously these chemicals are pretty persistent in the environment,” he said.
In addition to firefighting foam, PFAS substances are found in consumer products from clothing to cookware.
The U.S. EPA says human epidemiology and animal testing shows PFAS may be responsible at certain exposure levels for testicular and liver cancer; changes in cholesterol; low birth weight in newborns; liver tissue damage; and effects on the immune system and thyroid.
The EPA lowered the exposure level in 2016.
Colorado residents have joined class-action lawsuits alleging chemical manufacturers should have known about the potential threat in the firefighting foam. The Air Force continues to investigate the source of the contamination.
In 2016, Wright-Patterson issued a temporary health advisory for pregnant women and breast-feeding infants and supplied bottled water as an alternative drinking source.
Asking for reimbursement
In Colorado and Dayton, officials have sought reimbursement from the Air Force for the costs involved in tackling the problem.
They’ve also complained that the Air Force has not reacted quickly enough to the contamination threats.
Widefield, an unincorporated area near Colorado Springs, asked for payment to cover the cost of a $2 million water treatment plant built so it could to resume pumping from tainted wells.
Dayton has asked for nearly $1 million from the Air Force to reimburse out-of-pocket costs for environmental studies and groundwater testing.
The Air Force has said no to both, citing a federal law — the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — that the service branch says does not give it legal authority to retroactively reimburse communities paying to remedy contamination woes.
In cases where data shows the Air Force caused or added to contamination problems, state or local communities can seek reimbursement agreements under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, the military branch said.
Wright-Patterson officials have outlined a number of actions they’ve taken that they say show they’ve reacted quickly to concerns, from expanding a network of monitoring wells to track contamination to constructing the $2.7 million water treatment plant.
The base is also planning an expanded network of groundwater monitoring wells this summer.
“We are moving as quickly and as aggressively as we can on this issue,” said Marie Vanover, a base spokeswoman. “If contaminants go off base, we will take aggressive action.”
In Colorado, the Air Force set aside $4.1 million under a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay for bottled water, filtration systems and other costs. Most of the money remains unspent, however.
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Bernard, the Widefield Water and Sanitation District manager, has some advice for Dayton and other cities seeking reimbursement from the Air Force: Reach an environmental services agreement to pay for future contamination-related costs.
“If we had one of those in place from the get-go, we would have been able to get some money from them,” he said. “It’s going to be the quickest path to getting funds from the Air Force.”
Colorado leaders did feel they made progress after meeting with a high-ranking Air Force official at the Pentagon last fall, said Curtis Mitchell, utilities director for the Fountain water district.
“That really has changed the tone of our relationship with the Air Force and with Peterson Air Force Base,” Mitchell said. “It certainly did not come easy. It took time. It took patience.”
Tainted water woes
The EPA’s move to lower the safety threshold on exposure to the firefighting foam contaminant led the three areas in Colorado to begin shutting down wells near the Air Force base.
Security closed 24 groundwater wells that exceeded U.S. EPA threshold levels of 70 parts per trillion for lifetime exposure to drinking water, according to Heald.
One well had a reading of 1,300 parts per trillion, but most were between 150 to 250 parts per trillion, he said.
The water district spent $5.5 million to grapple with the issue and it has a goal to bring the shuttered wells back on line by 2020. Since late 2016, it switched consumption to surface water or uncontaminated sources, Heald said.
Fountain shut down four wells, has two back online and two others set to return in 2020, according to Mitchell.
In Widefield, three of 10 shuttered wells have gone back into production.
Mitchell said once an aquifer is contaminated, there is no immediate fix.
“This problem,” he said, “is going to be with us a long time.”
This newspaper has been the first to report on the potential risk to the Dayton water supply near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Count on us to continue our in-depth coverage that is made possible through your subscription.