Air Force admits to toxic contamination of Colorado Springs-area groundwater, but leaves omission

Published: Jul. 25, 2017 at 11:38 AM MDT
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The Air Force on Tuesday acknowledged potential guilt in fouling the drinking water of thousands of its surrounding neighbors.

In a first-of-its-kind admission for the service, Air Force investigators confirmed that toxic firefighting foam chemicals used at Peterson Air Force Base had leached into the surrounding groundwater. The findings were outlined in a report unveiled Tuesday that examined dozens of soil and water tests over the last year at the east Colorado Springs base.

Over and over, investigators issued the same warning: "There is the potential for a complete groundwater pathway for human receptors."

The findings come as military officials grapple with the contamination sites across the nation, despite decades of research on the chemicals' risks.

A Gazette investigation last fall revealed a string of Air Force studies and other military research dating to the late 1970s warning of the foam's danger. They include researchers' findings that such chemicals caused liver damage, cellular damage and low birth weight in laboratory animals.

Tuesday's report detailed several sites where firefighters sprayed the toxic foam directly on the ground since the 1970s.

In particular, the contamination appeared worst in Peterson's current firefighting training pit, which had a plastic liner that was designed to guard against those problems, Tuesday's report said.

The cause: "Overspray" from firefighters, investigators said.

But Tuesday's report gave only passing mention of a central path for such chemicals to reach the aquifer.

Investigators admitted pumping contaminated waste into Colorado Springs sewers, but they downplayed that as a contributor to toxic drinking water.

"The holding tank is occasionally drained into the sanitary sewer system, but such events are rare," the report said, adding each release totaled 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of chemical laden wastewater.

That admission was in stark contrast to previous statements by Peterson officials. Last year, base leaders acknowledged pumping foam-tainted water from the lined fire pit, storing it in a nearby tank and dumping it about three times a year into Colorado Springs' sewers.

The years-long practice likely made it easy for the chemicals to flood the nearby Widefield Aquifer.

That's because the chemicals are not be removed while passing through the Colorado Springs Utilities' treatment plant. From there, the plant feeds into Fountain Creek - the aquifer's primary source of water.

About two-thirds of the 12,000 acre feet of water that flows into the aquifer each year come from the creek as some of it dips underground near South Academy Boulevard. The rest comes from other tributaries, as well as water seeping into the ground.

The last such publicly-acknowledged wastewater release from the base happened last August.

The latest report also failed to mention the toxic firefighting foam's use inside a half-dozen hangars at Peterson.

An earlier report said investigation wasn't required for the hangars because the toxic foam was routed into city sewers.

Air Force officials plan to address the report at a news briefing Tuesday afternoon. It will be followed by a community open house scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Tuesday at Janitell Junior High School, 7635 Fountain Mesa Road in Fountain.