FOAM ON THE RANGE: State, Air Force investigating whether ‘forever chemicals’ have moved into nearby wells

Buckley Air Force Base sits just behind homes on the base.
Concern has grown about potential chemical run-off from the base through aquifers and surface water into neighborhoods near the base. 
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora’s iconic Air Force base has long been known for being a metro economic engine, a critical satellite security hold and the local place for flying fighter jets. Buckley Air Force Base may soon add environmental quagmire to that list.

But more tests are planned on and around Buckley after early findings that several sites on the base are heavily contaminated with so-called “forever chemicals” that could be contaminating drinking water sources.

Air Force and state health department officials say they could soon be contacting homeowners about potentially sullied water wells or other possible risks to contamination.

The Denver Post first reported in September that high concentrations of
toxic chemicals exist on Front Range Air Force bases and commercial sites,
including Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. The chemicals —  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFASs — are present in a host of industrial products including flame-smothering foams, as well as household items, from Teflon pans to microwave popcorn bags.

For decades, Air Force personnel used aqueous film forming foams on Buckley that are responsible for the toxic contamination, according to an April Air Force environmental investigation. The report signals Aurora’s entrance into a national reckoning with the prevalent chemicals plaguing military and commercial airstrips and communities — including El Paso County residents — dealing with contamination and exposure.

“It is very clear there is PFOS and PFOA (on Buckley) and they are at orders of magnitude above the health advisory — which is really not a surprise, being that that is very typical for a foam-fire-fighting site,” said Chris Higgins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, of two prevalent PFAS strains. Higgins is leading a separate, major study of PFAS contaminations.

“This is a national-scale issue that is being addressed everywhere in the country,” he added.

According to the April report commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, PFASs far exceeded Environmental Protection Agency guideline limits at five of six locations tested, including decades-old F-5 and F-16 crash sites. Analysts also tested training grounds where, for decades, Air Force personnel sprayed fire retardant foam to smother burning jet fuels.

The April investigation found concentrations of groundwater contamination as much as 3,000 times more than the screening limit.

“Five of the six sites investigated warrant further inspection to examine the potential for human ingestion exposure pathways for groundwater/drinking water,” the report concluded.

Buckley Air Force Base is located near the more sparsely-populated eastern
edge of Aurora. But the report notes that more than 550 private water wells are located within 4 miles of the base, citing the Colorado Division of Water
Resources.

A large portion of these wells draw water from a shallow, underground aquifer and many wells are listed for domestic use. Those wells could be at risk of contamination, the report says.

Below the hangars, burn pits and crash sites, groundwater at four of the tested sites is moving downgradient and toward private wells within 2 miles, the report found.

On the tarmac and prairie surface, water flows seasonally with rain and snowmelt. Those flows enter either Sand Creek or Murphy Creek and travel north, through Denver and Aurora neighborhoods, until emptying into the South Platte River. It’s an important water source for arid eastern Colorado and Nebraska.

Citizen watchdogs are wary about the potential for north Aurora homeowners becoming exposed to dangerous amounts of the synthetic and cancer-causing chemicals when drinking water from their taps or, to a lesser extent, taking a shower.

But all sides agree that more tests are needed before sounding alarm bells. So far, it’s only clear that groundwater is potentially contaminated and flowing toward private wells in the area. There is so far no determination whether those water sources have already been contaminated.

Air Force and Colorado Department of Health and Environment told The Sentinel those tests are coming down the pike in the weeks and months ahead.

“We’re not even sure if this is yet an issue,” said Captain Kenneth Hicks, a spokesperson for the 460th Space Wing installation at Buckley.

CDPHE officials said they are not aware of private wells being sullied. But with “emergency testing” allocated by the state legislature, department scientists will be testing private wells and water sources near Buckley to find where contamination might exist and get people clean water.

Hicks said that the Air Force will be contracting tests of sites within a mile of a base that “may or may not be affected” by the toxic waste. Air Force environmental staff, or Buckley personnel, haven’t contacted any homeowners.

Included in the 2019 report, a map shows Buckley Air Force Base and a bevy of domestic-use household water wells in the area. The report indicates groundwater flows at four of the six testing sites are down-gradient and each toward private wells within 2 miles. Map provided by: Aerostar SES LLC, a Florida-based consultant contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The “forever chemicals”

Beyond Buckley, PFASs are worrying local, state and national policymakers and environmental organizations.

Used widely for decades, the thousands of chemicals falling under the PFAS umbrella are still not fully regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. That includes two common compounds considered “forever chemicals” found at Buckley: perfluorooctanoic acid, abbreviated PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS.

According to the EPA, the man-made chemicals have become indispensable in consumer products since debuting in the 1940s.

Gore-tex water-proofing, non-stick food packaging from popcorn to burger-stand packages, ski waxes, polish, paints and cleaning products are a source of the chemicals.

The stuff is effective for industrial purposes, particularly in separating and snuffing out burning oil and gas.

The aqueous film-forming foams blamed for the contaminations on Buckley have also been used widely on commercial airport tarmacs and were commonly used by local fire departments. The EPA has called the foams “a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs.”

PFOA in particular is being phased out of major industry and consumer uses, despite its undisputed usefulness. But mounting evidence now indicates people exposed to high concentrations of some PFASs, including PFOA, have experienced a host of health issues from low infant birth weights, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption, the EPA says.

These chemicals stay in the environment and the human body for a long time, studies indicate. They’re dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their ability to resist breakdown, and even continue to accumulate.

According to the American Cancer Society, benign amounts of the so-called forever chemicals are likely in most people’s blood streams, but communities exposed to contaminated drinking water could have higher levels and suffer health consequences.

Down Interstate 25 from Aurora, Front Range residents are among those grappling with exposures to high PFAS concentrations.

Since 2016, residents of communities near Colorado Springs have been found to have elevated levels in their blood after waste leaking from Peterson Air Force Base and Fort Carson sullied watersheds and underground drinking water sources.

That revelation mobilized a testing plan and fix that involved providing bottled water to residents for some time.

CDPHE has said PFASs have “created an emerging, urgent public health challenge requiring enhanced action to avoid future contamination and ensure safe drinking water for all Coloradans.”

A map of Buckley Air Force Base and the six locations tested for PFASs included in the April 2019 investigation. Concentrations in soil and/or groundwater at five of the six locations exceeded screening levels, in some cases, by “orders of magnitude.” Several creeks are also shown; when flowing, surface water runs off-base into Sand Creek and East Toll Gate Creek.

More tests needed

PFAS and synthetic chemicals are widespread in consumer and industrial products — so much so that, to test whether Buckley sites were contaminated, analysts banned any Teflon-coated pipes and pumps at test site.

Not only were Gore-Tex-coated boots and slickers banned, researchers’ garbs had to be washed at least six times before they could be worn on-site for fear of PFAS contaminations muddying the samples.

Scientists from Aerostar SES, a Florida-based environmental analysis group, bored holes into Buckley’s soil and drilled almost 100 feet deep to reach the groundwater hundreds of feet beneath the surface.

One site was an unlined burn area for jet fuels used from the 1950s to early 1970s.
There, analysts tested soil on the surface and found high levels for two strains of PFASs: For PFOA, analysts found a concentration up to 7,200 micrograms per kilogram, or μg/kg. PFOS was detected at a maximum of 8,500 μg/kg.

That’s more than than 60 times the screening level for the chemicals analysts established with EPA guidelines.

In tests of groundwater beneath the surface, PFOA and PFOS were detected at 205 μg/l at the same site, compared to the screening level of .07 μg/l  —about 3,000 times the limit.
High concentrations were found at other sites as well.

Higgins called the contaminations “quite high” but still typical for a site where the fire-smothering foam was used for decades.

It’s unclear how much of the aqueous film-forming foam containing PFASs was used
on-base over the last 50 years.

Higgins said he wouldn’t be surprised if at least hundreds of gallons of the foam was used in that time. But he said one five-gallon bucket containing PFAS would be enough to contaminate a one-year supply of water for a town of 27,000 people.

“It doesn’t take much.” he added.

After finding those PFAS contaminations on five of the six sites tested, exceeding EPA guidelines, both the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Air Force are gearing up for more of these tests to determine if contaminated water is flowing off-site, the organizations told The Sentinel.

Hicks, the Base spokesperson, said last week personnel were in a “holding pattern” waiting for more information from Air Force environmental staff,  but acknowledged that protecting private water wells near the base is an issue.

State lawmakers have taken notice

An interim legislative committee has allocated $500,000 for “emergency” testing of groundwater and wells used for drinking water, said Laura Dixon, Community Involvement and Communications Manager for CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division.

The department will also formulate an “action plan,” she said, to find where PFAS is in drinking water, provide safe water to affected communities and make sure no new new leaks into the environment. 

“The Department is developing an action plan for testing and the plan is based on three primary objectives: (1) stopping new releases to the environment; (2) finding where it is in drinking water; and (3) ensuring those people get safe water.”

On its website, CDPHE also recommends private well owners test their own wells.

An F-16 takes off from Buckley Air Force to take place in flight exercises.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel

Neighborhood concerns

The scope of the contamination is also unclear for Russell Clayshulte, an Aurora resident and water quality specialist.

For 25 years, Clayshulte has co-chaired the base Community Advisory Group, or CAG. It’s a public oversight group to review and help chart the course of pollution clean-up efforts.

Clayshulte says the CAG hasn’t met since November 2017 — months before the Air Force contracted its study of the contamination released this year.

Buckley personnel would not say when the CAG last met but added leadership rotations have made it difficult to hold meetings.

The issue is personal for Clayshulte.

He said he was exposed to PFASs in college as a civil engineering student, when he was covered in foams containing the chemicals for weeks while testing its applications on jets. He said it is possible the exposure is responsible for his leukemia.

Communications between the CAG co-chair and base personnel are at an all-time low, he said. He’s essentially been “ignored” by base personnel this year, and knows little about the PFAS contaminations.

“They’ve gone silent, and that’s not good,” he said of Air Force personnel.

As the longtime CAG co-chair, Clayshulte knows this isn’t Buckley’s first rodeo with toxic waste.

At least 11 areas on-base are in some phase of environmental clean-up or analysis, according to Jennifer Talbert. She’s CDPHE’s Federal Facilities Remediation and Restoration Unit Leader, responsible for overseeing a host of waste clean-up enterprises in the state including Peterson Air Force Base and Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

“There has been ongoing remedial activities for a very long time,” she said.

The land on Buckley has become polluted with lead from shooting ranges and chemicals used as industrial degreasers, such as the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane and trichloroethylene, or TCE.

Longtime resident Ellen Belef said it’s a lengthy legacy beginning with Air Force personnel dumping waste directly onto the prairie — fodder for contaminating groundwater and surface water that flows sporadically, depending on the season.

Belef has served on a bevy of city boards and oversight agencies, including about 15 years on the Buckley CAG and a long stint as president of the Centre Pointe neighborhood association.

Centre Pointe bounds the southwestern edge of Buckley —  and part of its surface water runoff, which will flow south into East Tollgate Creek and a watershed area.

She’s aware of the PFAS contaminations and been worried about 1,4-dioxane, TCE and now “forever chemicals” possibly flowing into the creek. The wetlands area in particular is chock-full of wildlife, she said, and neighborhood kids will sometimes romp in the creek.

But Belef said she is happy with the progress Buckley has made in cleaning up the base and limiting leaks outside —  or under — its gates.

Talbert, the CDPHE staffer overseeing the site, said she’s not aware of any historical contaminations of off-site private wells or water sources stemming from decades of oil spills, fire trainings, munitions testing and dumping at the base.

Master Sgt. Ricky Kissell, a crew chief for the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard, gives his F-16 a bath at Buckley Air Force Base. Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

How much is too much?

To prevent new PFAS contaminations, Buckley phased out the fire-smothering foam responsible for the PFAS issues in 2017, and replaced it with a foam in line with EPA and military guidelines, said spokesperson Lt. William Gómez.

Fire-smothering trainings will still continue on the base with the new foam. Gómez said those exercises will be limited to double-lined pits, preventing more soil and groundwater contamination.

While scientists flesh out the extent of the contamination, federal scientists at the EPA are also considering the next steps forward for regulating PFASs.

Currently, PFASs are unregulated contaminants. The EPA has established some guidelines, but not enforceable limits that would bind polluters to clean-up plans.  Federal scientists are going through the process now to establish just how much of the these chemicals Americans can reasonably consume and still be healthy.

For Higgins, the fact that staff at Buckley and other Air Force sites are even testing for PFASs is commendable. Where the PFAS-ridden foaming fire retardant was used, and tests are conducted, scientists will probably find contaminations, he said.

But he added that the title “forever chemicals,” as some PFASs have been dubbed, is a fair one.

“We are starting to think of perfluorinated compounds on geologic time scales — not just our generations, but how many generations will have these in the groundwater,” he said.