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$3.8 million treatment plant brings clean water to Stratmoor Hills after years of contamination

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- The Stratmoor Hills Water District and Board of Directors unveiled a new $3.8 million centralized water treatment facility. 13 Investigates has learned ratepayers will foot a majority of the bill after drinking contaminated water for years.

The water treatment plant located west of Highway 85/87 promises to deliver up to 1 million gallons a day of drinking water free from manufactured perfluorinated to the Stratmoor Hills Community.

Water District officials say chemicals in the groundwater previously tested above the EPA's health advisory limit four times since 2016. According to officials, the most recent test above the EPA's health advisory limit was in 2020.

"The reason why the chemicals got into the aquifer is it was used in firefighter foam on the Peterson Air Force Base," Kevin Niles with the Stratmoor Hills Water District told 13 Investigates. "They used the firefighter foam to put out electrical fires and they used it during their practice testing of their fire protection equipment."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals and part of a larger group of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) found in drinking water. The EPA says these man-made chemicals are linked to a higher likelihood of deadly diseases like cancer and are found in several household items, and sometimes used for firefighting at airfields.

Before 2016, the Water District relied on groundwater from three wells. After contaminants were discovered in the Widefield Aquifer, the use of the wells was terminated. The district began working with the Fountain Valley Authority and bringing water up from the Pueblo Reservoir.

Niles tells 13 investigates he doesn't know how long the contaminants have been present within the water. However, he assumes it has been well over a decade.

Stratmoor Hills Water District received a $3 million loan from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2019 to build the water treatment facility. The project also received approximately $800,000 from the Air Force, covering an ion exchange filtration system.

Over time, the Water District says its 6,500 ratepayers will pay off the $3 million loan from the state. According to water officials, ratepayers will pay off the loan in 30 years.

13 Investigates asked Niles why the Air Force isn't footing the entire $3.8 million cost for the new water plant since the water contamination stems from its firefighters' foam.

"They did pay for the ionic exchange units, and they paid for it all to be hooked up," Niles said. "Our chemical levels aren't at an extremely high level now. Our average is about 35 parts per trillion that's coming into the facility. That's why we are confident is saying that there is a non-detect level leaving the facility, but I can't explain why the Air Force didn't cover all of the expenses."

The Air Force responded to 13 Investigates' request for comment, saying in part:

Over the past four years, the Department of the Air Force (Air Force) has

taken numerous actions and spent more than $100 million to respond to off-base

impacts of PFOS/PFOA contained in aqueous film forming foam that was released

at Peterson Space Force Base during firefighting activities. The Air Force's

response has included design and installation of treatment systems in six

public water distribution systems serving a total of 80,000 area residents to

reduce PFOS/PFOA concentrations in drinking water below the United States

Environmental Protection Agency recommended maximum level of 70 parts per

trillion. In addition, the Air Force has reimbursed public water systems for

operation and maintenance (O&M) costs associated with PFOS/PFOA treatment

systems.

Stephen Brady, United States Air Force

Niles tells 13 Investigates that Stratmoor Hills raised its water rates for the first time since 2019 earlier this year. The rates stem from some of the operating costs of the new plant. Water officials tell 13 Investigates that equates to an extra $5 to $8 on customers' monthly water bills.

According to the district manager, the rates are also meant to cover new hires and inflation.

Stratmoor Hills Water District recently received a $12,500 grant from CDPHE to cover some of the operating costs.

The Stratmoor Hills Water District will hold an open house for the Stratmoor Hills community and the general public on Friday, May 20, 2022, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at 3118 Glenarm Road in Colorado Springs.

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Dan Beedie

Dan is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about Dan here.

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