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Air Force Accountability Demanded in Colorado Water Contamination

U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo

Local, state and federal politicians Monday called for accountability and more investigation into the military's use of firefighting foam after a Gazette investigation showed the Air Force ignored decades of warnings from its scientists about a toxic chemical in the foam. The chemical is suspected in widespread water contamination.

The investigation, published Sunday, found that the Air Force ran a series of tests dating back to the 1970s that found the foam harmed laboratory animals. The service also ignored warnings from the Army Corps of Engineers and continued to use it for 16 years after a major manufacturer and the EPA agreed to phase it out, citing environmental and health dangers.

"That's the definition of negligence," said Colorado Springs Democratic state Rep. Pete Lee, whose district spans Fountain Creek.

Perfluorinated compounds used in the firefighting foam are a key suspect in fouling the Widefield Aquifer, leaving thousands of customers in Widefield, Security and Fountain scrambling for bottled water after the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its health advisory this year. The chemical is a suspected carcinogen that has also been linked to liver and kidney ailments in addition to high cholesterol.

Last week, Peterson Air Force Base announced that a 150,000-gallon tank filled with foam-tainted water was drained into the Colorado Springs Utilities sewer system in an "unplanned" discharge. The utility said the fouled water went into Fountain Creek, where it could further contaminate the Widefield Aquifer.

"We cannot be in a situation where we are allowing this to continue," said Fountain Republican state Rep. Lois Landgraf, whose district also spans Fountain Creek.

Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner issued an email statement Monday saying he wants to see the Air Force brass held accountable for fouling local water.

"It's outrageous that the people of El Paso County are burdened with contaminated drinking water, and it's extremely troubling that the Air Force was aware of the health risks linked to its use of a chemical to fight fires," Gardner said.

"I'm encouraged the Air Force is cooperating with local officials to remedy the situation. I will work to see that those who are responsible are held accountable and urge the Air Force to be transparent and forthcoming with information related to the contaminated water. I'll remain engaged with the Air Force and local community as it works to ensure access to safe drinking water."

What accountability could look like is up in the air.

Landgraf said she wants a state inquiry and may call for a hearing at the General Assembly.

"We need to be looking out for our citizens," Landgraf said. "That's the No. 1 priority."

Lee said he wants the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to investigate the Air Force as a likely polluter, saying the agency should "also impose, if appropriate, fines and a sanctions."

Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said he is focused on working with the Air Force to improve the city's water supply.

"My hope is they're in for the long haul," Ortega said.

Unlike the Security and Widefield water districts, Fountain switched entirely to cleaner surface water last year. Security stopped using the fouled aquifer last month, and Widefield has yet to announce such a move.

Ortega voiced confidence the Air Force would follow through with its promise to spend about $4.3 million helping the impacted communities install well water filters.

"We can't really go back and change what has happened in the past," Ortega said. "It's upsetting, but we're going to work with what we can."

The report was "incredibly disturbing," said El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, a former Air Force major who worked as a prosecutor at Peterson Air Force Base.

"I was taught you've got to take ownership and responsibility for your actions, and I was also taught the importance of having integrity," Waller said. "In this case, it just seems like those principles have been overlooked."

He called the Air Force's decision to wait six days before announcing its recent 150,000-gallon spill "inexcusable." And he said it was indicative of a larger accountability problem, as witnessed in the Air Force waiting for the EPA to act, rather than work off its studies detailing the foam's dangers.

"We always talk about being good neighbors with the military" Waller said. "We can only be good neighbors if we're open and transparent about our actions and what's going on."

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