In the summer of 2018, Lucy Molina, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in Commerce City near the Suncor oil refinery, said a city council member told her that her tap water was contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, also known as PFAS. At the time, she said, she didn’t know what the chemicals were. It was just one more reason to not drink the water in the heavily industrial north Denver area.
“We have to buy water to drink and to cook,” Molina said. In addition to nose bleeds that she attributes to air pollution, her 15-year-old son gets a rash when he showers at home, she said. “We just shower and it still leaves your skin really dry.”
The city’s water utility, South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, put out a news release in July 2018 saying the water was safe to drink because the PFAS concentrations fell below the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is about equal to one grain of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
But in the wake of growing public concern over PFAS, a group of chemicals used in a range of products, including firefighting foam, non-stick cooking wear and Gore-Tex waterproof outdoor gear, Colorado’s health agency is questioning whether that concentration limit is in fact safe.
“If I ask the state toxicologist and I ask experts in the field, they will never use terms like ‘safe’ with respect to PFAS,” said John Putnam, the director for environmental programs at the Department of Public Health and Environment. “Because we don’t really know, since there are limits to all these studies.”
New research has linked exposure to PFAS to health issues including cancer and immune, reproductive, and hormonal dysfunction. But the EPA’s advisory level, which is not enforceable, hasn’t changed since 2016 and seems unlikely to be revised any time in the near future. The Trump administration’s EPA has been rolling back water protections. And Congress has failed to pass comprehensive PFAS regulations, in part because Republicans, including those in Colorado’s delegation, have concerns about how much it will cost cities and water managers to comply. Compliance could include more frequent testing of water supplies costing thousands of dollars per week and upgrades to water treatment facilities that could cost millions of dollars.
That’s left Colorado in the unprecedented position of scrambling to set a drinking water standard — and then trying to enforce it. Putnam said this is a task the state doesn’t have the money or staff to handle yet. And any effort it takes to cut corners to hold polluters accountable or mandate cleanup could be challenged in court by cities, water managers and other groups concerned about their own financial liabilities.
“We will get push back. We’re getting sued on most of (our) rules of any significance right now,” said Putnam, citing lawsuits over air quality regulations from groups with ties to the automobile and oil and gas industries. “The last thing we want to do … is invest in it and move too quickly and then get shot down.”
But some residents in Colorado are tired of waiting. Since 2016, the state has known the toxic, mostly non-biodegradable “forever chemicals” have been found in Colorado’s drinking water supplies above the federal advisory limit. The chemicals have been found in groundwater within fire districts in Boulder County and near Front Range military bases, airports and other industrial sites that use PFAS-laced foam to extinguish fires. The cities of Security, Widefield and Fountain, which share a watershed with military bases and the Colorado Springs Airport, are ground zero for PFAS contamination in Colorado. A well at the Peterson Air Force Base tested at 88,000 parts per trillion for a PFAS compound. El Paso County, home to the three cities and four military sites — Air Force Academy, Fort Carson Army Base, Peterson Air Force Base and the Schriever Air Force Base — was selected by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as the site to take blood samples from residents and study the health effects of PFAS. The chemicals are less likely to be found in high levels in water supplies in other areas of the state, but given the chemicals’ omnipresence in modern life, they’re likely found in nearly everyone’s blood.
Amid growing doubt over the federal health advisory limit, six states have adopted or plan to adopt lower PFAS standards. New Hampshire set a limit as low as 12 parts per trillion for one of the PFAS compounds, PFOA, formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon. In June last year, Colorado’s Attorney General Phil Weiser signed on to a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler saying the current advisory limit for several PFAS chemicals is “not sufficiently protective of human health and the environment.” The CDC has set “minimal risk levels” for children at 14 parts per trillion for another PFAS compound, PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. That concentration is well below the average levels coming through public drinking water taps in Adams County, according to the water district’s most recent water quality report.
In response to public demand and inaction at the federal level, Colorado’s health department is asking the state legislature for legal permission to write drinking water standards for PFAS and is working on separate rules that could hold water polluters accountable by setting a groundwater standard and new permit permit requirements for how much PFAS is allowed to be released into the water.
A bipartisan bill, HB-1119, would allow the state for the first time to set a hard limit on how much PFAS is allowed in drinking water supplies. Water managers also could be on the hook for testing their water supplies more frequently. Worried about the cost of compliance, water utilities will likely lobby to narrow the scope of the legislation to place limits on how often the state can require monitoring and how low a drinking water standard it can set.
“Narrow it down to what we really want to know,” said Curtis Mitchell, the city of Fountain’s utilities director. And that, he said, is testing water before it enters the treatment facility and after it’s treated. Mitchell said he already spends thousands of dollars per week on testing these two points in the system. He worries he will have to test his entire watershed. “Let’s focus on what gives us the most value.”
The city of Fountain is also making a $7 million investment in its water treatment plant to filter out PFAS. The Air Force is helping to pay for the upgrades.
Kipp Scott, the water systems manager for the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, said he doesn’t want to have to divert resources from efforts to remove copper and lead from the water supply. The regulations could force him to triage such priorities to ensure compliance with PFAS standards. And if those standards are set too low, Scott said, “then your resources go to possibly meeting a standard that is not helping public water supplies or protecting public health.”
The bill also could require fire departments and facilities that use PFAS to inform the state how much they have stockpiled, and if used, require that the PFAS be captured and disposed of properly.
Separate from the bill authorizing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to write drinking water standards, the health department’s Water Quality Control Commission has been working on a new PFAS policy that would allow the state to regulate the chemicals through updated groundwater rules. The regulations could also set new conditions on water pollution permits.
Denver is among the cities raising concerns about the proposed regulations. The city has fire departments that use PFAS chemicals and owns the Denver International Airport, which is required by Federal Aviation Administration to use PFAS in its firefighting foam for safety certifications, and it faces financial liability for any regulations adopted. In a written comment to the state’s PFAS Action Plan, a representative for Denver said the state could be legally liable if it moves too fast with PFAS regulations, citing Colorado’s Administrative Procedures Act.
To set such standards under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act and other laws, the state will have to study health research, exposure potentials, and the cost-effectiveness of requiring utilities to meet such guidelines. That will take time and money, Putnam said. In many ways, Putnam said, Colorado’s law was written to slow the pace of regulation.
“We are actively trying to clarify law down at the Capitol now to move more quickly to address emerging threats,” Putnam said.
In September, lawmakers approved $500,000 so that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could subsidize drinking water testing and pay a third party to analyze the samples. As of Jan. 16, of the 891 water providers and private well owners the state notified, 132 have applied for funding to test their supplies. In the 2020-2021 state budget, the department is requesting $250,000 to hire two new toxicologists to help study PFAS exposure and another $500,000 to continue the drinking water testing program.
It’s unclear whether lawmakers will approve the additional money. Money is tight this year. Under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, Colorado lawmakers have to pass a balanced budget and cannot raise taxes to pay for new programs without voter approval.
If the health department doesn’t receive money from lawmakers this year, Putnam said, he may have to divert resources from other environmental programs to deal with PFAS contamination, which will slow down rulemaking on water rules dealing with arsenic, temperature and nutrients, such as runoff from agriculture.
Some environmentalists and water utility managers say polluters should be paying the price for cleanup and monitoring. States like New York have sued companies like DuPont and 3M, which manufacture PFAS chemicals. Scott, of the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, said the state should focus on identifying the source of the pollution “so the cost of having to do the treatment is not passed on to our customers.”
Scott said PFAS contamination in his district could be coming from any number of industrial sources in the area. Suncor, an oil refinery located along Sand Creek, has acknowledged it has released PFAS into the water. The facility uses firefighting foam to put out petroleum-based fires.
Scott said he tests the treated water supply weekly. As to whether it’s safe to drink, he said, “I am not a toxicologist.” He said he relies on EPA guidelines when deciding what’s safe. He acknowledged that these guidelines could change as new information becomes available. “Will we ever have the answer to everything, as science is developing on a day-to-day basis? No.”
Commerce City resident Molina said people should at least be given more information about their water quality. She said many of the area’s residents, nearly half of whom are Latino, speak only Spanish. The latest water report is in English. And it doesn’t mention the cancer risks of PFAS exposure.
“For me, more information needs to get out — the proper information and the proper languages,” she said. “It’s just keeping this community marginalized.”
“A lot of people here cannot afford a filter. They ended up drinking that water and sometimes they don’t know.” Sometimes, she said, “We have no choice.”