The Air Force is refusing to reimburse three Colorado communities for expenses incurred to remediate water contaminated by its use of toxic firefighting foam at its base. The Air Force reasoned that it does not have the authority to reimburse communities for the costs they incurred to address environmental contamination. This could potentially leave the towns responsible for an $11 million tab.
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) was developed by 3M and used at Peterson Air Force Base for decades to battle jet-fuel fed fires. Over the years, the foam eventually seeped into the Widefield Aquifer, which serves several nearby Colorado Springs communities, rendering its well water unsafe to drink. AFFF contains perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), such as PFOA and PFOS, which persist in the environment for years and accumulate in the body. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that exposure to elevated levels of PFCs can lead to a number of health problems including testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and pregnancy-induced hypertensions.
Investigators discovered PFC concentrations from the Widefield Aquifer were more than 1,250 times the EPA’s lifetime health advisory warning of 70 parts per trillion. Shortly thereafter, the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts spent $6 million to address the contamination. These costs could reach $12.7 million by the end of 2018.
The Air Force pledged $4.3 million in aid, yet only $1.7 million of that amount will go to the water districts while the majority of the funds will purchase bottled water and carbon filters. After releasing its own report, the Air Force determined that other sources likely contributed to the aquifer’s contamination, though none has been identified. The military will continue studying PFCs’ effect on residents’ health until 2019 and does not expect to undertake a remediation plan for contaminated wells until next decade.
Water districts and residents are justifiably upset they could be left paying for a problem they didn’t cause. Fountain officials have budgeted $4.2 million in fixes through 2018 after they decided to increase water rates by 5.3 percent. Widefield plans to install a new treatment plant for 10 affected water wells, which could amount to $12 million in costs. Security is also planning to build a treatment plant and, in the interim, has been purchasing uncontaminated water from Colorado Springs Utilities at a rate of $1 million per year.
Although these chemicals are not regulated, public awareness of their presence in our nation’s drinking water has grown since the EPA tested for PFOA and PFOS over the last few years. Data shows that 194 water systems nationwide serving 15 million people have found traces of these chemicals in their water; 64 of those systems contained PFC levels over the EPA’s lifetime health advisory. Lawsuits have been filed by many systems seeking reimbursement of costs to temporarily deliver clean water while a permanent solution is implemented.
Our firm, along with Roger H. Bedford of Roger Bedford & Associates, has filed lawsuits on behalf of the water systems in Gadsden and Centre, Alabama. These complaints allege that carpet and textile companies, manufacturers, and chemical suppliers located upstream in Dalton, Georgia are responsible for contaminating the Coosa River and Weiss Lake. The lawsuits were filed to ensure that these entities, not ratepayers in Gadsden and Centre, would pay to decontaminate their drinking water.
Lawyers at Beasley Allen are investigating other PFC contamination cases. If you have any questions about this subject, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in our firm’s Toxic Torts Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Rhon.Jones@beasleyallen.com, Rick.Stratton@beasleyallen.com, or Ryan.Kral@beasleyallen.com.