Tainted water cancels harvest sales at iconic Venetucci Farm, frightens residents

Researchers seek links between Air Force firefighting foam and PFC contamination in Fountain, Security and Colorado Springs

by Bruce Finley, originally posted on September 23, 2016


FOUNTAIN — It’s harvest time, but this year, there’s no pumpkin giveaway at Venetucci Farm, which for decades has delighted families in the Pikes Peak region and produced fruits and vegetables for schools and others. Instead, researchers are conducting studies and drawing blood from cows in a search for signs of contamination.

Reeling from the toxic chemicals that have tainted groundwater south of Colorado Springs, the iconic Venetucci operation was forced to shut down sales before the harvest, which farm co-manager Susan Gordon figures cost it $100,000 in lost sales.

Gordon and her family are making plans to have their own blood tested because for a decade they have been drinking water contaminated by perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. They know there’s no remedy if it turns out they absorbed cancer-causing PFCs.

“I’m furious about this water contamination. I feel angry. I’m angry about having to get my blood tested,” Gordon said.

“I’m not scared. I mean, there’s no course of action, nothing you can do to flush it out of your system. Am I going to get cancer from it? If I do get cancer 10 years down the road, is it going to be clear this was the cause? The scary thing is that there are so many unknowns.”

Fellow residents of Fountain, Security and Colorado Springs filed two lawsuits in U.S. District Court this week against 3M Corporation and various manufacturers that produced and sold firefighting foams they claim has leached the cancer-causing chemicals into the Fountain Creek Watershed area.

The lawsuits seek a class-action certification on behalf of affected residents and a declaration that the defendants acted with gross negligence and careless disregard for the safety of those who use water from the contaminated watershed. The plaintiffs are seeking a court order requiring defendants to test and monitor each property and all drinking water within the contamination area.

They are also asking that a judge order defendants to provide medical monitoring for all those in the proposed class. The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

The response at the historic 190-acre Venetucci Farm, revered for its now-canceled annual pumpkin giveaway, is one of many precautionary adjustments Colorado residents are making amid revelations of PFCs — thought to be spreading from U.S. military airfields and other sites where firefighters sprayed a foam for fighting petroleum fires.

 This week, the latest government well test data show PFCs have contaminated groundwater throughout the Fountain Creek watershed, nearly as far south as Pueblo, at levels up to five times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. The area south of Colorado Springs, home to an estimated 80,000 people, ranks among the hardest-hit of at least 63 areas nationwide where PFCs have been measured in public water systems at levels the EPA deems dangerous.

Public water authorities in Fountain, Security and Widefield are scrambling to provide enough alternative water: buying millions of gallons of diverted Arkansas River water from Colorado Springs, installing new pipelines and minimizing pumping from contaminated wells that once met municipal needs. And mothers with children flock to a 7-Eleven at dusk paying 25 cents a gallon to fill jugs with clean water — to be safe.

A contractor delivers emergency bottled water to 77 households, El Paso County officials said, including 28 like Gordon’s that rely on wells drawing now-contaminated groundwater.

But nobody has been held responsible for putting out the PFCs, which also come from carpet-stain sprays, fast-food packaging, microwave-popcorn bags and factories that make products such as nonstick coatings for cookware. It’s not illegal to make and use PFCs, and, although the EPA in May issued the health advisory, those who use PFCs are not regulated.

“The reality is, everyone wants answers quickly about the PFCs. But this is a national-scale problem,” said Colorado School of Mines environmental chemist Chris Higgins, who has been advising government officials. “A lot of the labs are behind. Some stopped taking samples because they cannot keep up. And no party has been declared responsible. Until that happens, there’s not much action a state can take.”

An Air Force investigation into possible sources of PFC contamination at airfields nationwide won’t be done until next year. Air Force engineers say they are planning to test soil and water at Peterson Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs as part of that investigation.

“We want to see if it (PFCs) is still there in the soil and if there is remediation that is necessary,” Peterson Air Force Base spokesman Steve Brady said.

A commitment to spend $4.3 million to help residents set up carbon filtering systems has been made as part of an Air Force “good neighbor” policy, Brady said.

“We’ve stopped using AFFF in all situations except for if there was an airplane crash,” he said. “We would need to use it for life-saving measures.”

Other possible sources of contamination in the Fountain Creek watershed remain unclear. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials have been talking with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, among others, as part of a state examination of PFCs, state officials told The Denver Post this week.

They’re investigating past activities at a municipal firefighter training area near the intersection of Printers Parkway and Academy Boulevard.

PFCs have been included on lists of chemicals that EPA scientists are considering for possible regulation in the future. Federal water quality experts for years have known about PFCs, but it wasn’t until May that the EPA issued the 70 ppt health advisory limit, lowered from a previous limit of 400 ppt. EPA officials link PFCs to kidney cancer — which an initial state review found to be slightly elevated in the area south of Colorado Springs — liver damage, testicular cancer, low birth weight, developmental damage to fetuses, impaired production of antibodies and cholesterol changes.

“The EPA set the health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion in order to provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to (PFCs) from drinking water,” EPA spokeswoman Lisa McClain-Vanderpool said.

PFCs “are extremely persistent in both the human body and the environment “ and “even a short-term exposure can result in a body burden that persists for years and can increase if additional exposure occurs,” Vanderpool said.

Neither the CDPHE nor El Paso County health officials have recommended blood tests. CDPHE disease control and environmental epidemiology chief Mike VanDyke said blood tests for PFCs are not clinically helpful. “They do not determine your risk of health effects, nor do they help a physician with treatment decisions. Our goal is to work with the water systems to eliminate exposure, which does not require blood testing,” Van Dyke said.

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged that residents may want to know the level of PFCs in their bodies.

“However, conducting bio-monitoring on all individuals in a community may not be feasible. A statistically based scientific approach allows for a practical and feasible approach to assessing the range of potential community exposures,” agency officials said in an e-mailed response to queries. “People who feel they need personal test results are encouraged to seek advice from their health care provider and other professionals.”

When the foundation that owns Venetucci Farm ordered Gordon to shut down sales as a precaution and have blood tests, she took the initiative of inviting researchers to help solve the national problem. The farm fields she and her crew care for now are a hub for university, state and federal researchers. Last week, a U.S. Department of Agriculture team was working at drawing blood from her cows.

The initial results from a Colorado School of Mines study indicate the spread of PFCs to crops so far appears to be minimal.

But CDPHE officials “are in the process of working through plant uptake and human risk assessment models to provide appropriate guidance,” agency spokesman Mark Salley said.

State and federal officials say they advise residents whose water is contaminated to switch to other sources.

At the 7-Eleven in Security last week, Teresa Baierl, 55, was one of several mothers paying for water from a 25-cent-per-gallon “Clean Refreshing Delicious Water” dispensing machine.

“This is our drinking water supply now,” Baierl said, filling up jugs for herself and her 24-year-old son. Both are runners, wanting to stay healthy.

“We don’t want potentially cancer-causing chemicals in our water,” she said.

“If this is the Air Force’s fault, they should have to spend as much money as it takes to get it fixed. This could affect a lot of people. Taking precautions is worth it. Why does it have to become this bad before they decide to fix it?”


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