Health & Water Officials Try to Reassure Residents in Areas of PFC Contamination

Panelists speak to a packed auditorium at Thursday's community meeting at Mesa Ridge High School
Jake Brownell / KRCC
Panelists speak to a packed auditorium at Thursday's community meeting at Mesa Ridge High School

Hundreds of residents of Security, Widefield and Fountain attended a community meeting Thursday to learn more about potentially harmful chemicals recently detected in area drinking water.  The chemicals are called Perfluorinated Compounds, or PFCs, and have been linked to low infant birth weight and other health problems.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new guidelines about what constitutes safe PFC levels in drinking water.

Tom Gonzales, Deputy Director of the El Paso County Public Health Department, says these new guidelines affect water systems in Security, Widefield, and Fountain, where PFC levels have tested above the EPA's new threshold of 70 parts per trillion.

"What we're finding is anywhere between barely detected in some parts of the Widefield aquifer to over 200-400 parts per trillion, depending on the location of the well," says Gonzales.

Officials say they're still working to trace the exact source of the PFCs, but many have pointed to firefighting foams long used at nearby Peterson Air Force Base. The Air Force has pledged $4.3 million to pay for municipal water filters in the affected areas.

In a statement from Peterson Air Force Base, officials are calling the move an interim and proactive measure to treat the water, and that the investigation into the source of the chemicals will continue.  The drilling of monitoring wells is expected to begin in October.

At Thursday's meeting, more than a dozen officials from local, state, and federal agencies, including the EPA, county and state Public Health Departments, the Air Force, and municipal water systems addressed residents about the issue. 

The goal was to explain the risks of PFCs and to reassure residents that steps are being taken to mitigate those risks, including diluting water with uncontaminated sources to help lower PFC levels below those new safety thresholds. 

An interactive map from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment shows areas of concern.
Credit Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment / screen capture
An interactive map from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment shows areas of concern.

"We have about 60,000 people in the area of concern," said Tyson Ingells, lead drinking water engineer for the Colorado Department of Public Health. "Of those 60,000 in the area of concern, we estimate that 10-15,000 are receiving water that may at times be above the health advisory for the perfluorinated chemicals."

However, health officials say some areas, especially on the west side of Security-Widefield, are still using water above the health advisory level.

In a question and answer session, residents expressed concerns about long-term PFC exposure and voiced frustration over the cost of purchasing home filters and bottled water to avoid contamination. 

After the meeting, Security resident Maria Peterson said she hopes those responsible for overseeing the water system will help people in affected areas pay for clean alternatives.

"We're still paying the water bill. Whatever it takes for this community to get up on its feet, the bill shouldn't be on us, because we already have one," said Peterson.

El Paso County Public Health is recommending residents in the area who utilize private water wells to get the water tested.  Free tests are available and can be scheduled by calling the department at 719-575-8602.  El Paso County Public Health has also set up an informational website.  Residents can also consult a map from this Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for more information on PFCs in area drinking water.

This story was originally posted July 6, 2016 and was updated to reflect the public meeting. Original headline: Air Force Pledges $4.3 Million for Water Filters in Security, Widefield & Fountain; Town Hall Thurs.