The Air Force ignored decades of warnings from its own researchers in continuing to use a chemical-laden firefighting foam that is a leading cause of contaminated drinking water for at least 6 million Americans, including thousands of people south of Colorado Springs.
Multiple studies dating back to the 1970s found health risks from the foam, and even an agreement 16 years ago between the Environmental Protection Agency and the foam’s main manufacturer to stop making the substance did not curtail the Air Force’s usage.
Until drinking water tests announced by health officials this year revealed contaminated wells in the Colorado Springs area, the Air Force did almost nothing to publicly acknowledge the danger of the firefighting chemical.
That contamination sent residents across southern El Paso County scrambling to buy bottled water and to test their blood for the toxic chemical, which, when ingested, can remain in the body for decades.
The Gazette’s investigation into the military’s research of perfluorinated compounds, the intensely powerful chemical in the foam, found:
Studies by the Air Force as far back as 1979 demonstrated the chemical was harmful to laboratory animals, causing liver damage, cellular damage and low birth weight of offspring.
The Army Corps of Engineers, considered the military’s leading environmental agency, told Fort Carson to stop using the foam in 1991 and in 1997 told soldiers to treat it as a hazardous material, calling it “harmful to the environment.”
The EPA called for a phaseout of the chemical 16 years ago and 10 years ago found the chemical in the foam “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
About 150,000 gallons of water being held in a fire training area retention tank was discharged into the CSU sewer system.
The tank held water that contained an elevated level of perfluorinated compounds, a residual component of a firefighting foam historically used at the base for emergency response. Peterson authorities discovered the discharge during a routine tank inspection on Oct. 12. The tank is part of a system used to recirculate water to the fire training area.
Despite the warnings, the Air Force still uses the chemical in Colorado Springs, with at least 600 gallons of the firefighting chemical at Peterson Air Force Base. While that might not sound like much, it is mixed as a 3 percent solution with water. At that ratio, 600 gallons of chemical would combine with about 20,000 gallons of water to make 80 tons of fire suppressants.
The service plans to phase out the chemical in its firetrucks in coming weeks, but the Air Force still hasn’t determined when it will remove the chemical from firefighting foam systems at Peterson’s hangars.
The urgency of the issue came clearly into focus last week when Peterson Air Force Base announced the release of an additional 150,000 gallons of water polluted with the chemical into the Colorado Springs sewage system and from there into Fountain Creek.
After acknowledging the spill, Peterson officials said they weren’t required by law to notify downstream users of the water in the contaminant’s path.
“At this point, this is a nonregulated substance,” Peterson environmental chief Fred Brooks said.
Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said he’s upset that the Air Force apparently knew the hazards of its firefighting foam but kept spraying it in Colorado Springs above the shallow Widefield aquifer.
“It is alarming that a substance was used that people knew then was a dangerous substance,” Gardner told The Gazette.
The Air Force says some of its early studies were flawed but hasn’t explained its apparent lack of reaction to the piles of later studies finding the foam toxic. (Source: The Gazette | Tom Roeder & Jakob Rodgers | October 23, 2016)
Thomas Crisp is a retired military officer from Whitmire. His veteran updates can be found weekly in The Newberry Observer.