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Stratmoor Hills Water District sues government for chemical contamination by air force base

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Stratmoor Hills Water District is moving forward with a federal lawsuit against the government, claiming the Peterson Air Force Base continues to contaminate the water supply with PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.”

On Monday, KRDO13 Investigates uncovered a federal lawsuit filed by the Stratmoor Hills Water District against the United States of America. It said, “The Peterson Air Force Base has taken no action to stop or even mitigate the ongoing migration of its PFAS contamination into the Plaintiff’s water supply.”

KRDO13 Investigates reached out to the Stratmoor Hills Water District about the lawsuit, but it said it was completely unaware of it and never authorized any filing. Our team eventually learned previous district leadership approved the potential legal action several years ago. However, nothing was formally filed until last week but without the current board's consent.

However, despite not knowing about the initial filing of the lawsuit, the current board unanimously voted Friday to move forward with the lawsuit against the federal government.

“What the district is doing is looking out for the future of our customers,” said Kirk Medina, the district manager for the Stratmoor Hills Water District.

The district first detected PFAS chemicals in its water supply in 2016. According to the lawsuit, most of the chemicals come from a special foam for fighting fuel-based fires, particularly from aircrafts. These chemicals then allegedly leak into the groundwater and make their way to the Fountain aquifer, which the Stratmoor Hills uses for its drinking water.

“When it goes into the groundwater at a nearby military base, it can spread fairly quickly into the nearby areas,” said Jared Hayes, a senior policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group. “It doesn't stop at the baseline. So when residents are in their private wells or even municipal wells in the area, you might find that PFAS are winding up into that drinking water supply.”

Since the detection of PFAS in the drinking water, the Air Force was forced to provide ion exchange treatment systems to the Stratmoor Hills Water District, as well as other surrounding water districts with high levels of PFAS. Those treatment systems remove PFAS from the drinking water, which means the water you drink at home is completely safe. The Air Force also pays the majority of the operating cost for that treatment, which is about $100,000 to $150,000 a year. However, that federal support could come to an end.

The Air Force tests for PFAS in surrounding water wells quarterly. If for three consecutive quarters, those tests show less than 70 parts per trillion of PFAS, the Air Force no longer has to provide monetary support.

“The levels seem to be dropping a little bit,” Medina said. “So there's going to be a point when we won't be at a high enough level to continue getting support.”

This is one of the main reasons the Stratmoor Hills Water District decided to move forward with the federal lawsuit. They are worried that if they lose support from the Air Force, the costs of maintaining and operating the treatment systems will fall on the shoulders of their customers.

“We want to make sure that the removal of these contaminants isn't resting solely on our customers,” Median said.

The lawsuit is asking Peterson Air Force Base to reimburse and pay for “past, present, and future costs to investigate, evaluate, and measure the contamination that continues to migrate into the Stratmoor Hills Water District, including the costs of employing outside consultants and testing labs for these tasks,” as well as the cost of removing PFAS from the water supply.

The Department of Defense’s policy to provide support when PFAS is detected at 70 parts per trillion or more was the Environment Protection Agency’s previous health guideline. However, the EPA’s new standard for PFAS in drinking water, as of March 2023, is four parts per trillion, about 17.5 times less than the old standard. The EPA has until September 3, 2024, to finalize this new drinking water standard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said unsafe levels of PFAS have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, harmful fetal development, and suppression of the immune system.

“What the Department of Defense should be doing at any base that has high levels of PFAS contamination or groundwater is setting up cleanup activities, pumping out dirt contaminated water, filtering that water and pumping it back in, or setting up different types of barriers to stop the flow from going into surrounding communities,” Hayes said.

However, Hayes said these remediation efforts have been slow. KRDO13 Investigates reached out to Peterson Air Force Base about the lawsuit but it declined to comment on pending litigation.

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, the U.S. Air Force is proud to be a leader in the response to PFOS/PFOA in drinking water, and we will continue to work with our neighbors, regulators, and elected officials to protect human health and our environment.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

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


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