Fountain resumes drawing from contaminated aquifer, but some residents wary of filtered water

2018-06-08 | Government Technology

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For the first time in 2 1/2 years, water drawn from a contaminated aquifer in southern El Paso County soon will be flowing from Fountain residents' taps after being filtered to remove dangerous chemicals.

The city plans to start using an Air Force-supplied filter June 18 that can remove perfluorinated compounds -- a milestone for the community that comes amid continued distrust after possibly decades of being exposed to toxic chemicals in the Widefield aquifer.

A second filter is expected to begin working about a month later, said city Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell.

He called the move "huge for Fountain."

"It took a lot of work to get to where we are," Mitchell said. "We want to make sure we get it right. And we've taken absolutely every step to do that."

Still, at least one resident isn't convinced it's safe to drink.

Penny Cimino, whose house is next to one of the new filters, said she won't cancel her Deep Rock bottled water service until she is sure the filtering works.

Cimino's son has had stomach pains, and she developed a noncancerous mass the size of a baseball on her liver. Both, she fears, were caused by the chemicals in the water they drank.

"It's a trust issue," Cimino said. "It's only human to just kind of be a little bit apprehensive, so it'll have to prove itself.

"Once there's a history of it being a good thing and really working, then I think people will be able to relax a little bit."

The move marks the first time since October 2015 that the city will draw water from underground. The aquifer is saturated with toxic chemicals linked to a firefighting foam used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base. The chemicals also have been used in carpet cleaners, fast-food wrappers and other household items.

Fountain officials have avoided the aquifer since then, relying solely on surface water from the Pueblo reservoir.

Even with the filters up and running, no more than 15 percent of the city's water is expected to come from the aquifer on peak usage days, Mitchell said.

He acknowledged that some residents might be reluctant to use water from the aquifer.

But he reiterated what he's been saying for more than two years: "Fountain's water is safe."

Mitchell said recent tests on the Air Force's granular-activated carbon filters -- which cost the military about $700,000 -- showed "nondetectable levels" of the toxins. That meant there were less than 2.5 parts per trillion -- far below the Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, which applied to two types of perfluorinated compounds. Colorado health officials require water systems to account for a third such chemical.

Mitchell said he plans to conduct weekly sampling as the filters get going, to ensure they function correctly.

Still, many more varieties of perfluorinated compounds exist. And last year, a Colorado School of Mines researcher found that those filters weren't very effective at removing more than two dozen chemicals derived from the firefighting foam.

As a result, cities relying on them must replace the filters more frequently if they choose to account for the growing list of perfluorinated chemicals, Christopher Higgins, the study's author, said at the time.

Mitchell said he plans to focus on the three types of chemicals listed by state and federal water agencies as posing health risks. But, he said he would continue working with Higgins, and monitor his research.

"Our initial focus certainly needs to be on the ones of the most concern," Mitchell said.

"But we're not going to ignore long-term concerns related to the whole classification of perfluorinated compounds."

Fountain was the first to stop using water from the aquifer, and other water districts in southern El Paso County followed suit several months after the EPA's May 2016 decision to tighten its health advisory for the chemicals. The compounds have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol and other health ailments.

Widefield Water and Sanitation District resumed using the aquifer in spring 2017, after installing an ion-exchange treatment system.

Security Water and Sanitation Districts remains the lone major water provider still avoiding the aquifer. The district installed new pipes and purchased additional Pueblo reservoir water from other providers to meet residents' needs.

All three water districts are working with the Air Force to construct long-term treatment facilities, which are expected to be paid for by the military. For Fountain, that treatment plant is expected to include its other two wells tied to the aquifer, which remain off-line.