Colorado Water Officials Create First-Ever Regulations For ‘Forever Chemical’ PFAS

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Dan Boyce/CPR News
El Paso County resident Liz Rosenbaum spends about $70 per month on bottled drinking water rather than drink from her tap.

Colorado has its first policy to regulate so-called “forever chemicals.” 

The state’s Water Quality Control Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a policy to put new limits on per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. The class of chemicals is a common ingredient in everything from nonstick pans to foam used to smother flames from jet fuel. 

A growing body of scientific evidence has linked the chemicals to a range of health problems, including cancer and pregnancy issues. Meanwhile, federal efforts to regulate the chemicals have lagged, leaving states to take action on their own. 

Liz Rosenbaum, founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, was relieved to see Colorado join the list of states cracking down on the chemicals. 

“I’m in shock,” she said just after the vote. “We’ve been working on this for over four years.” 

Rosenbaum’s community just south of Colorado Springs is widely seen as ground-zero for Colorado's growing PFAS pollution crisis. In 2016, scientists found elevated levels of a specific PFAS in the drinking water for Security, Widefield and Fountain. The study traced the contamination to firefighting foam used at Peterson Airforce Base. Two years later, another study found elevated levels of the same chemical in community members’ blood. 

Further testing has since revealed the chemicals in waterways across the state. Recent results from a state study found four water sources where levels exceeded a health guideline set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. All of the surface water samples had some detectable levels of the chemicals. 

In an effort to control the problem, the Colorado Water Quality Control Division proposed rules to require wastewater treatment plants and industrial sites to monitor the chemicals. It also established the authority for the state to limit the chemicals in future wastewater permits. 

But the focus on wastewater was met with a fierce backlash from cities and private interests. 

Three days before the commission hearing, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Greeley joined utilities and water districts in demanding regulators pause deliberations over the new rules. The motion to vacate claimed the rules focused on wastewater treatment plants, which do not add PFAS to water systems. 

The groups called on the regulators to instead focus the source of the chemicals, like companies making carpet products or consumers using nonstick pans. 

The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which serves more than 2 million people around metro Denver, put an especially shocking number behind their objection. If the state required wastewater districts to clean up the chemicals, it could cost ratepayers over $700 million. 

Representatives for the Colorado Water Quality Control Division dismissed those concerns. Manufacturers and airfields would also face new scrutiny to clean up the chemicals, which means the wastewater district probably wouldn’t end up stuck with the problem. Under the rules, the district also likely wouldn’t face any of the new limits on PFAS until 2031. Meg Parish, a permit manager with the division, said by then it could be far cheaper to clean up the chemicals.

“Better technologies for treatment are advancing all the time,” she said. 

While environmental advocates supported the regulation, many said they wished it would go further. The limits for the chemicals align with health recommendations from the EPA.

Rebecca Curry, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group EarthJustice, said recent studies have found much lower levels of the chemicals could be unsafe. 

“We think this is a really critical first step and we’re glad to see Colorado taking initiative in absence of federal action,” Curry said. 

In the end, the commission came down squarely on the side of environmental advocates. Commissioner Rick Hum said he wished “forever chemicals” had stayed inside the laboratories of U.S. chemical companies. 

“I wish 3M had never invented this class of chemicals. I wish they never sold those rights to DuPont knowing the health risks. I wish commercial interests didn’t make them ubiquitous in our world,” he said. 

“But here we are.”