The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has ensured the safety of public drinking water supplies throughout the nation. As part of the federal program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for drinking water quality, and periodically requires the testing of public drinking water systems that serve more than 10,000 people to examine potential emerging contaminants to determine the need for future regulation.
In October 2015, water samples taken from public water sources in Security, Widefield and Fountain, Colorado, showed elevated quantities of Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs). PFCs are manmade compounds that can be found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant sofas and carpets, food packaging, as well as Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, used to fight petroleum fires. The military airfields at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, are the suspected source of PFC contamination; however, further water and soil testing is necessary to determine the definitive origin.
PFCs are not currently regulated by the SDWA; however, according to the El Paso County Health Department, prolonged exposure to PFCs is linked to potential health hazards, such as developmental damage to fetuses during pregnancy, low birth weight, accelerated puberty, kidney and testicular cancer, and liver tissue damage. It is suggested that pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children may be at higher risk due to exposure to PFCs.
An EPA press release from February 22 indicated that, according to the October samples, some of the public water sources in Security, Fountain, and Widefield, had concentrations of PFCs above the health advisory level set by the EPA in 2009. It recommended that residents consider testing their well water or installing a reverse osmosis under-the-sink treatment option.
After the initial testing by the EPA, Security began to manage PFC levels in area wells by blending the water to lower levels, as well as using low-level wells, according to Roy Heald, general manager of Security Water and Sanitation Districts. They suspected that PFC levels in their well water would be on the high side when the new levels were announced just months later; however, it was difficult to prepare for the unknown standards that the EPA would set.
“We did not know how stringent the new EPA concentration allowances would be,” Heald says. “We could only estimate based on rumors.”
Local officials had no direct contact with the EPA until 24 hours before the agency issued a new health advisory announcement on May 19. They were caught off-guard when the EPA announced that acceptable levels of PFCs needed to be below 70 parts per trillion (ppt); the prior level was 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) for PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) and 0.02 ppb for PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfonate), or a combined total of 400 ppt. Areas where both PFOA and PFOS are found are meant to adhere to the new standard of 70 ppt. Concentrations of PFCs in all 32 of Security’s wells were considerably higher than the EPA’s newest health advisory level, with one well reaching 1,370 ppt, nearly 20 times higher than the new limit.
People were concerned for their safety, health and the future of their water. You can learn more about this situation via these Denver Post articles: “Water contamination issues grip Colorado Springs-area residents” and “Drinking water in three Colorado cities contaminated with toxic chemicals above EPA limits.”
Needless to say, communities affected by high levels of PFCs in their water supply have been through a lot in the last 10 months. Local water and sanitation districts scrambled to find short-term solutions that would allow citizens to have safe water as quickly as possible. They have also been working to develop long-term solutions that will ensure the future welfare of well water in the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas, all while simultaneously continuing to run regular business operations. As of September 9, all wells in Security have been shut down. None of the wells are being used, and none of them will be used until treatment is implemented. The three zones that make up the total community are now receiving 100 percent surface water, which is being transported from Pueblo Reservoir through the Southern Delivery System (SDS), and there are no PFCs in the water, according to Heald.
The Widefield and Fountain areas have also transitioned from using well water to water piped in from north of Pueblo. Widefield set up free bottled water distribution at the onset of the situation and installed water dispensers in schools. All eight of Fountain’s municipal wells have PFC levels above the new EPA limit. In an attempt to lower these elevated levels, an engineering firm has been hired by the city.
Heald is quick to note that this is a short-term solution, at a higher cost; the diverted water costs three times more than local well water. However, money spent on the urgent situation has not affected customer rates. Yet. Currently, Security residents pay about $25 a month for their water service, but Heald insists that even if customers see an increase in their bills, the Security Water and Sanitation District will continue to have competitive rates for the area.
“The $3 million dollars that we have spent was, thankfully, from our reserves,” says Heald. “This district has been well-managed for 60 years and we had the reserves that enabled us to take emergency action; however, it was earmarked for other projects that, now, cannot be completed—like improving infrastructure. Continuing to spend money in this way is simply unsustainable.”
This short-term fix will carry the community through the winter. Additional infrastructure, in the form of a $825 million treatment plant and pipeline that will transport water 45 miles from Pueblo Reservoir in Colorado Springs, is being built to meet summer 2017 water demands. Beyond next summer, long-term treatment solutions for the wells will be employed in order to return to the use of groundwater wells.
“Rates are low in this area because the infrastructure is bought and paid for. The water rights are also bought and paid for,” Heald explains. “Long-term solutions involve treatment on our wells so that we can get back to using groundwater.”
A self-described eternal optimist, Heald praises the “phenomenal cooperative effort” of the surrounding communities, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and local health departments for their quick action and the success of applied solutions. “There are people who deserve more credit than they will ever get for getting us through this. We’ve done things that I didn’t know were possible.”
Learn more from Roy Heald about how Security plans to provide water that is PFC free: Ron Heald Speaks on Security Water Supply.
And watch for related coverage in the upcoming issue of Headwaters magazine, focused on protecting public health through drinking water supplies, which will hit mailboxes the second week of December. Not a Headwaters subscriber? Sign up here, or visit yourwatercolorado.org in December for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.