A US Air Force base in Colorado discharged 150,000 gallons of wastewater laced with toxic chemicals nearly a week ago, and the USAF is just now disclosing the information.
The spill took place at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and involved 150,000 gallons of wastewater containing perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which are used at airfields to fight fuel fires. The chemicals are linked to testicular cancer, low birth weights and other health problems.
The bulk of the waste flowed through a Colorado Springs Utilities wastewater treatment plant before crews could try to block it, allowing the water to flow into a creek -known as Fountain Creek- that empties into the Arkansas River and near Pueblo, Colorado.
“Even if we would have been able to head it off at the plant, we’re not equipped. I don’t know of any wastewater plants in the country equipped to remove PFCs,” Colorado Springs utilities spokesman Steve Berry said. “We would not have been able to remove that chemical before it was discharged back into the environment from our effluent.”
“We don’t use any groundwater or surface water from Fountain Creek. We use water from the Arkansas River taken upstream from where Fountain Creek flows in,” Pueblo Board of Water Works spokesman Paul Fanning said. “But it is not a good thing to have those contaminants anywhere in our water. There are some reported health effects. It is in our interest to protect our public.”
Fanning also notes that he was not informed of the spill, only finding out about it when reporters made inquiries on Tuesday.
The USAF could not be reached to discuss the spill, releasing only a prepared statement.
“We take all environmental concerns seriously and have opened an investigation to determine the cause of the discharge and prevent it from happening again,” said Col. Doug Schiess, commander of the 21st Space Wing.
In Colorado, government well test data show PFCs have contaminated groundwater throughout the Fountain Creek watershed with PFC levels up to 20 times higher than the EPA health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.
Air Force Officials said that the military formerly used PFCs to fight fires, but that crews have discontinued use with exception of extreme emergencies. While PFCs are not regulated under federal law, the USAF civil engineers are currently in the process of determining just how contaminated the area is and say they will put out a nationwide report in the spring.
While Colorado Springs and Pueblo have allegedly not been affected, public-water authorities in Fountain, Security and Widefield have scrambled to provide enough alternative water for residents to consume. Security, who has been purchasing millions of gallons of diverted Arkansas River water from Colorado Springs, is installing new pipelines and cutting pumping from contaminated municipal wells. Since Sept. 9, Security Water and Sanitation district manager Roy Heald said that the city has not pumped any water from wells. “This spill does not affect us immediately,” Heald said. “Our only concern would be the long-term effect on Fountain Creek and the Widefield Aquifer.”
El Paso County Public Health spokeswoman Danielle Oller said the County “takes this discharge seriously and will coordinate with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment to collect water samples along Fountain Creek, if warranted.”
Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment spokesman Mark Salley said the agency has since been informed, adding that the incident “is under investigation by the Air Force, and the department is waiting for information. …The Air Force has demonstrated its commitment to identifying and addressing PFC contamination at Peterson Air Force Base and facilities nationwide.”
The Denver Post reports that the US Air Force has contributed $4.3 million of taxpayer funds to help communities deal with the contamination.
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