Residents make do — but don’t make peace — with their contaminated water
-by Nat Stein, originally posted on July 27, 2016
When Zenaida Ventura found out her water was contaminated, she wasn’t surprised in the least. She turns on the sink to a chorus of “ewws” from her gathered daughters. “Try it,” she says, with a daring smirk. “It tastes funny. Like uh-uh am I going to let them drink that.”
Ventura, who’s been living since 2003 at Security Mobile Home Park, off U.S. 87 not far from Widefield High School, already has been buying cases of bottled water for her whole family for more years than she can count. And that’s perfectly normal — none of her neighbors, as far as she knows, drink the tap water, either.
So when news broke that their water contains high levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), synthetic compounds linked to low birth weights, cancer and heart disease, the reaction among residents of the mobile home community was a collective, cynical shrug.
The health advisory issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in May wasn’t a sign that water quality had changed. Rather, it was the standard for what’s considered potentially hazardous that shifted.
The new threshold for PFC levels you may not want to consume, based on emerging science, is 70 parts per trillion. That’s equivalent to a tablespoon in three Olympic-sized, 50-meter swimming pools.
The water flowing out of taps at Security Mobile Home Park was tested at 247 parts per trillion, or more than 31/2 times the advisory limit. That’s because it’s served by two private wells that draw solely and directly from the contaminated aquifer.
So while the nearby Security Water District can dilute its ground water with clean water piped in from Colorado Springs’ Southern Delivery System, private well systems like this one are on their own for now.
For Ventura, there’s not enough time or space in her life to worry about it. Her four daughters zip around the cramped home shrieking as her sister-in-law’s family members sit chatting on the front steps. But all the energy revolves around Ventura, the matriarch of the household, who just got home from work but hasn’t fixed dinner yet.
There are four cases of bottled water stacked in the corner. She doesn’t keep super-close track of the cost — because they need it, no matter what — but she estimates it runs her around $400 a month to keep the family of five and their guests hydrated.
“Yeah, it’s a lot of wasted money over the years,” Ventura says. “And the health, that’s terrible. If something happened to me, what about my kids?”
But ultimately, she’s resigned to it.
“I try not to hear the news anymore because it’s always something wrong,” she says. “I’m still living here; I’m not going to move. This is our home.”
Some of Ventura’s neighbors have harsher words for the situation. A lane over sits an older couple with two yappy dogs on a shaded porch. They’re doing the bottled water regimen too.
“Oh we’re pissed,” says the man. “But the manager, the owner, they’re not going to do anything for us,” his wife adds. “We should be compensated for this.” (They requested anonymity, fearing retaliation.)
A few doors down, John and Alley Smith, a young couple who moved in just a few years ago, point out their lease agreement says “tenants shall be responsible for arranging for and paying for all utility services required on the premises, except water, which shall be provided by Landlord.”
John says they received no notification about contamination from the park manager, Dave Brazee, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. The last they heard from him was in January to say their lot leases would be going up by $20 a month with no subsequent explanation.
“So it says they provide water, but really they provide poison — and we still have to pay for it?” John asks rhetorically.
They’ve been able to get some help up the street at St. Dominic Catholic Church, where Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado has been distributing free bottled water to affected residents sporadically over the last month.
“So we go thinking that’s great,” says John, “But then the line is like three miles long. So you pick up all the water you can carry and that lasts like two weeks. And now it’s like, ‘OK, but what do we do for the next two weeks, the next year, the next 10 years?'”
Alley is more weary than outraged. “We all know how it is with this state,” she says. “Either [the water] is unsafe to drink, there’s not enough of it, or we need it to put out the fires. I just want to know when this’ll be fixed so we can go back to normal.”
There’s no simple answer to her question.
A swath of agencies — the public water districts, El Paso County Public Health, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Peterson Air Force Base — are working together to help affected residents. But the bare fact remains that the PFCs used in a host of consumer and industrial products since the 1970s are an unregulated substance.
So the buck stops nowhere, really, because there’s no statute, regulation or rule to enforce. The advisory is all there is.
That means paying for the cleanup is more a moral than a legal obligation. And who that obligation belongs to is as yet unclear, as the investigation into the source of the contamination is still ongoing.
CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division is taking the lead on that front. Community involvement manager Warren Smith says that well sampling near the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, where the Air Force provides emergency firefighting services, came back showing high levels of PFCs.
“While that’s not conclusive, it’s strong evidence that Peterson is at least contributing,” he says in an interview, adding that his division’s investigation will be supplemented by Air Force officials’ own findings.
Those findings, due by the end of the month, are part of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s nationwide initiative to mitigate damage possibly caused by a PFC-laden firefighting foam used at virtually every base. Chief of Public Affairs Mark Kinkade says 183 bases in total are due for further investigation, so the $137 million tab racked up so far is likely to keep growing.
Of that, $4.3 million will be spent evaluating and treating the drinking water around Peterson Air Force Base. There are no specifics, at this point, on the treatment plan.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing; you can’t just go down to Home Depot and pick up filters for all these wells,” says Stephen Brady, Peterson’s public information officer. “There are so many variables that go into it — size, depth, water flow — that the contractor is trying to figure out before actually installing anything.”
A press release Thursday announced that $108,000 of that $4.3 million was awarded to the company Bristol/Weston to deliver 5-gallon water bottles to the sites of private wells and small private systems. Security Mobile Home Park is on that list, as is Fountain Valley Shopping Center, Pentecostal Assembly Church and NORAD View Mobile Home Park. The measure is meant as a stop-gap until customized treatment plans are finalized.
Dave Gonzales, deputy director of El Paso County Public Health, says that private wells like the one serving the Security Mobile Home Park are high on the list of priorities, given they’re especially contaminated. EPCPH sent letters to the permit holders of around 75 private wells in the affected area. Of those, 45 have been tested with results back from 37. Of those, 26 contained PFC levels above the health advisory.
The delay, Gonzales explains, is because the EPA-approved lab they’re using is backlogged and in California. He encourages anyone whose drinking water comes from a private well to call EPCPH at 575-8602 for free testing.
“We need to do site evaluations to determine the best treatment,” Gonzales says. “We’re looking at every option.”
In cases like the Security Mobile Home Park, where the people drinking the water aren’t the well permit-holders, EPCPH has requested owners alert their tenants.
John and Alley Smith say they got no official notice, but rather noticed their neighbors starting to carry in bottled water.
“So we did too,” says John, “But this needs to be more of an in-your-face issue. Because if it’s like ‘don’t drink the water today’ or ‘don’t drink the water tomorrow,’ that’s one thing. But if it’s like ‘don’t drink the water for several months and oh by the way, the whole stretch of time you didn’t know about this…'”
Alley answers his rhetorical question with one of her own: “It’s inconvenient and it sucks, but what other options do we have?”