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A black-crowned night heron prowls the banks of Sand Creek in Commerce City on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, anchored by Commerce City, will be paying Denver Water $2.75 million this year for enough supply to dilute local well water tainted by PFAS “forever chemicals” from firefighting foam runoff, officials said Tuesday. 

The district serves 65,000 people, and said it needs a new $130 million treatment plant to filter out PFAS and past contamination from the industrial solvent 1,4-dioxane, in order to avoid buying relatively expensive Denver water indefinitely. 

The district is applying for federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grants to build the new plant, but is now competing with dozens of communities newly in need after the Environmental Protection Agency radically lowered safe PFAS guidelines in June, officials said. PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. 

More than 100 communities across Colorado are scrambling to retest drinking water under state guidance, and come up with dilution or treatment plans if PFAS levels prove too high. The EPA’s drinking water guidance for PFAS, a family of common water repellents used in thousands of consumer goods from rain gear to nonstick pans, was formerly no more than 70 parts per trillion of lifetime exposure. 

In June, the EPA’s guidance for two forms of PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS, was cut to 0.004 parts per trillion and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively. South Adams was fine under the old guideline; under the new guidelines, its 2021 results of 4.6 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS are up to 1,000 times the new guidance. 

Frisco was one of the first Colorado communities to see the changed guidance put them in potential hazardous territory, and the town shut down some wells and reopened a treatment plant. Thornton has also announced that past test results are now well over the lowered guidance and has changed well sources and sought new treatment methods to remove PFAS. 

The Forever Problem: “Forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS, are an increasing toxic burden on Colorado and the United States, and The Colorado Sun is committed to coverage of public health threats posed by the ubiquitous consumer chemicals. We continue to follow threats from the chemicals to drinking water, croplands and wildlife, and the extensive costs required to clean them up.

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More Colorado communities are likely to follow. State water quality officials have said a 2019 statewide testing program including most local water agencies gave more than 100 agencies PFAS results that are above the new guidance, and need to be retested. 

State and local news releases list the many potential hazards of PFAS contamination, including lowered immunity, lower birth weights and more. But they have also emphasized that drinking current water supplies is not dangerous or cause for a water crisis. Water agencies note that no current testing methods can reveal PFAS at the extremely low thresholds of 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt now suggested by the EPA. 

The testing threshold for South Adams, alongside many other agencies, starts at 2 ppt, and with Denver Water dilution, the agency is once again below those thresholds, said Abel Moreno, South Adams district manager. 

“The EPA has moved the goal posts, and we are taking steps to reduce the presence of PFAS even further,” Moreno said. 

Part of the confusion over the EPA and PFAS is the federal agency’s distinction between “guidelines” and “standards.” The EPA issues guidelines, considered strong suggestions and signals to state health departments, when research is still being done and the science is not settled. State health departments and environmental groups are hopeful the EPA will turn its PFAS drinking water guidelines into enforceable standards through regulations issued this fall. 

South Adams has shut off wells near a metro firefighting training facility. The district believes other wells it owns may have been contaminated by firefighting-related runoff from the former Stapleton airport. There has not been any connection established between PFAS in South Adams County water supplies and PFAS contamination at the nearby Suncor Energy refinery, Moreno said. 

South Adams is scraping corners of its budget to find the $2.75 million it expects to pay to Denver Water through the rest of this year. The agency had a previous backup contract with Denver Water for 2,000 acre-feet, and will now use that water and buy more. The district is trying to avoid raising customer rates for costs related to PFAS contamination, Moreno said. 

Moreno said he thinks South Adams County has a good chance at some of the $130 million it needs for a plant treating PFAS and a chemical taint dating back to 2012, from industrial solvents that reached groundwater. 

“We believe that we are going to get Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding,” Moreno said. “What we don’t know is how much.”

When the EPA issued the new lowered guidance in mid-June, Moreno added, “we were dealing probably with a handful or so of other utilities in the state. Now we’re dealing with a lot of others that are possibly going to be competing for the same dollars.”