It's been almost two months since residents of Security, Widefield, and Fountain first learned their drinking water contained potentially unsafe levels of chemicals called Perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. And despite steps taken by local, state, and federal agencies to address the problem, many residents still wonder when they'll be able to feel confident their tap water is safe to drink. In the meantime, they're looking for alternatives.
Debbie Maiurro remembers when she first heard there were potentially toxic chemicals in her drinking water.
"We went and bought bottled water right away," she says.
Maiurro has lived in the affected area most of her life. She grew up in Fountain, raised her kids in Security-Widefield, and now lives in a house she shares with her sister on the east side of Widefield. She says she was shocked to learn about the levels of PFCs in the Widefield aquifer.
"It was really concerning especially because you have no idea what these chemicals are and how long they've really been in our water--it was scary," Maiurro says. "I think it was more scary at first, and now it's kind of set in and it's just a fact, it's what we have to deal with."
For Maiurro and her sister, dealing with the contamination means, among other things, installing a brand new reverse osmosis water filter under the kitchen sink. Health officials say these filters, which usually cost at least a few hundred dollars, are effective at removing PFCs.
"You know you do the best you can with what you have. You know, I do feel bad for the people who don't have the means to get the systems put into their homes," Maiurro says.
Different parts of Security, Widefield and Fountain currently have varying levels of PFCs in the water, ranging from zero up. Officials say PFC levels in Maiurro's area are likely currently below the EPA's new 70 parts per trillion health advisory. But that's not true everywhere.
At a recent public meeting on the issue, officials explained that contamination is coming from the Widefield aquifer, which has long been an important water source for Security, Widefield, and Fountain water districts. In response to the health advisory, the districts are now diluting that groundwater with water from other surface sources, like the Pueblo reservoir, to lower PFC concentrations to safer levels.
"They really have been diligently working to maximize the use of their surface water, to minimize the pumping of their wells, and to make sure the fewest amount of people possible are being exposed to this chemical, but people are being exposed," said Tyson Ingels, lead drinking water engineer for the state health department, at the public meeting.
Ideally, the water districts would like to filter PFCs out of the groundwater altogether.
That's where the Air Force comes in. 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 help the water districts design and install new municipal filters, and to help develop treatment solutions for people getting their water from private wells. But officials have suggested it could be months before these filters are ready. Air Force spokesman Stephen Brady says there's no 'one size fits all.'
"It's going to depend on the flow rate of the well, the amount of space that's available. There are a number of different variables involved and they're going to have to basically build filter systems to meet the needs of these different water districts," says Brady.
In the meantime, there are no official programs in place to help pay for home filtration systems or bottled water. This goes for the estimated 10-15 thousand residents who live in areas where PFCs are still believed to be, at times, above the health advisory level, and the many more who still don't feel comfortable drinking the tap water.
Security Water District Manager Roy Heald says at this point the situation doesn't warrant such a response. He says the new 70 part per trillion health advisory is for long term exposure, and only pregnant women and infants in the most affected zones need to consider alternate water sources.
"I don't believe this rises to the level of a natural disaster or an e. coli outbreak. This isn't an acute health hazard," says Heald.
Still, residents like Maria Peterson, speaking after the recent public meeting, are frustrated.
"We're still paying the water bill. We're still paying the water bill for whatever it takes for the community to get back on its feet. The bill shouldn't be on us, because we already have one," Peterson said.
For the time being, local food bank Care and Share, has stepped in. Since the end of June, they've been giving out free bottled water every Friday at St. Dominic's Catholic Church. Communications director Shannon Brice says folks have been nervous.
"There was a lot of uncertainty about it," says Brice, "and just having the comfort of knowing that they were leaving our distribution with safe clean drinking water certainly put them at ease."
Brice says the group is giving out cases of water to between 500 and 600 families each week. They plan to continue to do so through the end of the month, at which point they hope people will be in a better position to pay for alternate water sources if they feel they need to.
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 the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for more information on PFCs in area drinking water.
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