Colorado may have more locations where dangerous PFAS “forever chemicals” are stored and used than any other state in the U.S., according to a database released by the EPA after challenges from a watchdog group.
About 21,000 industrial sites in Colorado appear on the previously undisclosed EPA database of locations that “may be handling” PFAS, with more than 85% of those places related to oil and gas, and heavy concentrations of possible locations at the industry’s core in Weld County, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which forced EPA to release the data.
PFAS chemicals repel water, lubricate, and prevent stains better than many other substances, and have been used in firefighting foam and thousands of common household and industrial products worldwide.
The national database includes more than 100,000 possible PFAS locations, according to the watchdog group that forced EPA to release it, far more in the most recent analyses of PFAS ubiquity throughout the country. A map released in July by the Environmental Working Group put the number of Colorado locations possibly handling and discharging PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) into the environment at 501.
State officials investigating PFAS contamination and solutions in Colorado said they are not surprised by the extent of the EPA PFAS listings.
“It doesn’t sound crazy at all,” said David Dani, emerging contaminants coordinator in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which has an ongoing series of PFAS tests and mitigation plans. Researchers are constantly discovering new products containing PFAS chemicals, which are popular because of properties that resist water and prevent stains.
“So we’re constantly learning more about what these products are,” and where they are, Dani said.
Colorado starts foam buyback
Colorado in September launched a new program to help local fire departments replace stores of firefighting foam containing PFAS with a safer alternative, and store the chemicals until the state figures out a disposal method, Dani said. Municipal water supplies covering 90% of state residents have been tested for the chemicals, and the state now encourages anyone using private well water to sign up for testing.
PFAS, which encompasses thousands of chemicals with slight variations, can run off into groundwater and accumulate in fish, animals and humans. While federal and state officials are still establishing safe human consumption limits for PFAS, the EPA says studies show the chemicals cause “reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals,” as well as tumors. High cholesterol levels in those exposed are also common impacts.
The chemicals, also used as repellents or lubricants, and previously in nonstick pans, as well as thousands of other products including fast-food wrappers, do not appear to break down or lose their potency, thus earning their “forever” label.
Physicians for Social Responsibility claimed in a July report that oil and gas companies in some states used PFAS or chemicals that break down into PFAS in fracking wells between 2012 and 2020. Colorado was not among the six states listed in that report.
California, a much larger state by population, is second in in the database’s total of “may be handling” sites, at about 13,000, with Oklahoma third, according to PEER, a nonprofit that provides legal and technical support to whistleblowers. PEER won release of the EPA’s PFAS registry and database through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The vast reach of PFAS chemicals and potential water contamination should put pressure on federal and state regulators to finally complete long-running studies on how to set a strict national drinking water standard, demand safer substitutes and force cleanups of spills, PEER advocates said.
“Colorado has become the PFAS capital of the United States,” said PEER’s Rocky Mountain director, Chandra Rosenthal. As EPA consistently delays moving its PFAS “guideline” to a specific cap in drinking water, Rosenthal said, “it is imperative that the state set a drinking water standard ASAP. Offering filters and bottled water to impacted communities isn’t sufficient.”
Suing to get PFAS locations from the EPA
The EPA said in a 2019 PFAS “Action Plan” that it would begin compiling a database and map of “PFAS environmental data.” PEER asked for the data set in a freedom of information request in 2020, and the EPA denied the request. PEER sued in federal court. Earlier this year, the EPA settled the complaint, released the information, and paid PEER’s legal fees, in 2021.
PEER filed more requests in June for updated data and the tools used to compile it, and the EPA complied with new information in July.
PEER believes the locations with possible PFAS involvement are placed in the database because they are related to industries known to use the chemicals or products containing them.
The EPA did not answer Colorado Sun questions about the database.
The EPA should also be reaching out to communities with PFAS locations rather than trying to block release of information, the attorneys said.
“The EPA is not being transparent. And EPA has the authority here to take action and is failing. So the government is failing us,” said Monica Mercola, an environmental legal fellow with PEER in Maryland who fought to get the database and is crafting a public, searchable map of sites.
PEER says its analysis of the “may be handling PFAS” database shows nearly 90% of Colorado’s listed sites are related to the oil and gas industry. The next largest category in Colorado, waste management, encompasses fewer than 1,000 of the 21,000 potential sites.
Oil and gas sites use PFAS or chemicals that break down into PFAS in fluids for drilling and fracking, in firefighting foam, and in equipment for lighting and backup power, Mercola said.
As an example of how PFAS chemicals shed from industrial and consumer materials and into water supplies, Mercola said, a firefighter’s gear thrown into an Olympic-size swimming pool would contaminate all the water above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory for drinking water.
Colorado drillers say they are PFAS-free
Representatives of Colorado’s oil and gas trade said PFAS chemicals are not used by their members, and that the industry has worked with legislators and regulators to find alternatives for other PFAS uses such as on-site firefighting foam.
“American Petroleum Institute members who operate in Colorado do not use PFAS additives in hydraulic fracturing fluid, nor do they use mixtures that could create PFAS derivatives in hydraulic fracturing fluid,” said Justin Prendergast, API Colorado spokesman, in an email response.
“In 2011, Colorado was the first state in the country to require the disclosure of companies’ hydraulic fracturing fluid. From that data, there is no evidence that fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer has been used in Colorado operations,” Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Scott Prestidge said, in an email.
Recent legislation “has prohibited the sale of PFAS foam in the state, prohibited the use of foam for testing and training, improved containment requirements and required registration for entities that may be storing or using PFAS foam,” Prendergast said.
Asked if the state knows whether PFAS chemicals are currently used in fracking at Colorado sites, Dani said, “right now we don’t know enough about what’s in these fluids, and what could be at these oil and gas sites. So we do want to investigate and do additional testing to see what’s out there and evaluate that risk.”
Other states moving before Colorado
California moved out in front of the EPA and other states in July, announcing health guidelines on certain chemicals in the broad “forever” category to less than one part per trillion in drinking water. The EPA’s current guidelines, which are only recommendations, put PFAS levels at 70 parts per trillion. California will follow in coming years with standards on what is technically and economically feasible in cleaning up existing contamination.
The Environmental Working Group has estimated that 18 million to 80 million people in the U.S. are drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals at potentially harmful levels.
Before newly-uncovered databases began showing how ubiquitous PFAS products are throughout the economy, Coloradans had heard that their problems stemming from the chemicals were concentrated in places like Security, Fountain and Widefield, south of Colorado Springs. Testing has shown runoff from decades of firefighting foam use at Peterson Air Force Base has tainted drinking water wells for those towns. Boulder County has also identified plumes of contamination, including from the Sugarloaf Fire Protection District.
Community leaders in El Paso County, for example, had to scramble to replace tainted water supplies with clean sources, and federal officials began a series of blood tests among residents to determine how much of the chemicals they had absorbed.
One incentive for city water providers in seeking strict, enforceable EPA limits on PFAS chemicals is that they could then more easily seek damages from those who manufacture or release the chemicals into the water. Legal sites say, however, that cities themselves are also worried about being sued for failing to keep PFAS out of public water systems.
Dani said it’s important to continue “working with our federal partners” to find PFAS contamination and set a national drinking water standard. Asked if the state would move ahead on its own if the EPA takes too long, Dani said, “We’re also talking with all of the other states that have on their own set drinking water standards to learn about those steps and processes. . . and we’re also helping to try to push forward what’s happening federally as fast as possible.”
EPA and other scientists also continue to study new uses and hazard levels among the thousands of compounds that make up the dangerous PFAS family of chemicals, Dani said. The history of PFAS research shows, Dani said, that new rounds of tests produce surprisingly bad results “that may push that timeframe to be a lot quicker, just with the urgency.”
The health department’s first job, state toxicologist Kristy Richardson said, is to “find and break potential PFAS exposures,” and that’s why Colorado has emphasized water sampling. “In the absence of any standards, we’ve been very effective at doing that,” she said.
While it awaits new federal standards and considers creating its own, Colorado is currently targeting PFAS hazards in firefighting foam of the kind that has already contaminated locations in El Paso and Boulder counties. The “takeback” program started in mid-September, paying departments to replace the PFAS-containing foam they have on hand.
The buyback comes after a state law took effect Aug. 2 preventing the sale of firefighting foam with PFAS. Other recent state laws and regulations require users of previously-sold PFAS foam to register with the state, and to have a containment plan if they are using the foam in testing or training.
Colorado is also launching a program this fall urging local water departments to go beyond testing their treated water, by using state funding to test upstream for PFAS and search for possible sources of the contamination. The testing grants also come with the possibility of emergency replacement and new water treatment funds if PFAS is found, Dani said.
“With this funding, we’re about to get a lot more information about what actual PFAS levels are in our waters and environments,” he said.