- The Air Force Academy used PFAS-based firefighting foam for training during the 1970s and '80s.
The Air Force finished conducting an expanded site inspection to determine whether private drinking water wells south of the Air Force Academy have been contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, stemming from the military’s use of firefighting foam.
But it's unclear when the results of that inspection will be made public.
As part of an initial PFAS site inspection, an Air Force contractor first tested groundwater on the Air Force Academy for two PFAS, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The results — which showed levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water health advisory limits — triggered testing of 40 private wells in the Woodmen Valley neighborhood.
Air Force Academy spokesperson Michael Kucharek confirmed Nov. 5 that the owners of those private wells had received preliminary test results.
An Oct. 31 email from Aaron Termain, the director of El Paso County Public Health's Environmental Health Services Division, to County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez, sheds a bit more light on the well tests.
In that email, Termain references a conversation with Air Force Environmental Engineer Britt Grunewald, who told him that three of the wells contained trace amounts of PFOS and PFOA below the EPA's health advisory level.
The remaining wells had non-detectable levels of the two chemicals, Termain says.
Kucharek did not confirm those details, instead saying that the Air Force expected to provide validated results to well owners in the next few weeks.
"Results are currently being verified by an independent third party," he said. "The Air Force will continue to monitor PFOS and PFOA levels on a periodic basis at six locations along the installation's southeast perimeter."
- Bill Beaudin
- Woodmen Valley resident Bill Beaudin thinks water in the Academy's Ice Lake should also be tested.
According to a September letter from USAFA Commander Col. Brian Hartless to Woodmen Valley residents, the Air Force used firefighting foam containing PFOS and PFOA for firefighter training from the 1970s until 1990, after which training moved to Peterson Air Force Base.
(PFOS and PFOA — which have been linked to cancer and thyroid issues — also contaminated water supplies once used by communities surrounding Peterson Air Force Base due to the military’s use of PFAS-based foam. Affected water districts have switched sources or implemented new filtration methods in recent years, and the Air Force has spent $50 million to address the contamination.)
Now, Air Force fire trucks are equipped with a new, reportedly safer, firefighting foam formula that does not contain PFOS or PFOA, but different chemicals from the PFAS group. Peterson no longer uses the foam for training.
But PFOS and PFOA are called "forever chemicals" because they can contaminate water supplies for decades — which is why the Department of Defense is conducting site inspections at military bases across the country where the old formula was used.
Liz Rosenbaum, co-founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, worries there's more to the story of PFAS contamination that the Air Force has failed to address.
"I believe the Air Force has the opportunity to be open about the contamination levels which occurred in the past and it is imperative for the current officials to change the course of history by releasing this data instead of continuing to hide it," Rosenbaum writes in a message.
She points out the Air Force didn't test private wells for a third PFAS chemical, perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), found in firefighting foam.
While there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, the EPA has health advisories for PFOS and PFOA alone (and a drawn-out bureaucratic process means it could take years before the agency creates an enforceable "Maximum Contaminant Level" under the Safe Drinking Water Act for those chemicals). Likewise, the Air Force has only committed to testing sites for PFOS and PFOA.
"PFHxS... needs to be specifically addressed individually. It is the right thing to do for a community that supports its military neighbors," Rosenbaum says. "By taking the side of the EPA's 'work in progress' guidelines the Air Force is demonstrating they are choosing to play semantics rather than doing what needs to be done for the greater good of the residents living in the contaminated area."
Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines found last year that El Paso County residents who lived near Peterson Air Force Base for at least three years before 2015 (and were therefore exposed to contamination from firefighting foam discharges) had blood levels of PFHxS 10 times higher than the general U.S. population.
Meanwhile, the residents showed levels of PFOS that were twice as high as normal, and levels of PFOA that were 40 to 70 percent higher than normal.
Bill Beaudin, a longtime Woodmen Valley resident, says he and his wife use the well on their property for outside watering, but it wasn’t tested because they no longer use it for drinking water.
Though he points out that PFAS contamination could still affect plants and wildlife.
“We think that [Woodmen Valley residents] with organic gardens and/or livestock ... should be next in line to have their wells checked (if they wish), and see that as the bare minimum of testing,” Beaudin writes in an email.
An Air Force spokesperson responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for the results of the expanded site inspection after the Indy's press deadline, saying the following:
"Once the expanded site inspection has been completed and the written report approved by the Air Force it will be posted to the United States Air Force Academy Administrative Record which is available online.”
A previous version of this article ran online Nov. 12, 2019.