PFAS from Colorado military bases contribute to environmental injustice
Toxins from Peterson have contaminated the drinking water of downstream communities
The 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division receives first CH-47 Chinook helicopters at Butts Army Airfield on Fort Carson, Jan. 22, 2013. Crew members conduct their post flight checks. (Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs NCOIC/Released)
For over a century, the U.S. Army has been plagued by the lasting consequences of its negligent use, storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals. As a result, countless troops and dependents residing on contaminated bases regularly came into contact with toxins known to trigger adverse health effects and deadly diseases.
In high-profile cases like North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, nearly 1 million service members and their families were exposed to deadly toxins for over 30 years (1953-1987), including health hazards like benzene, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS.
Also known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are a group of over 12,000 artificial compounds that represent a distinct environmental concern due to their resilient molecular structure, which prevents natural decomposition, allowing them to easily permeate the soil and contaminate drinking water sources. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to testicular cancer, organ damage (liver, kidneys), high cholesterol, decreased vaccine efficiency in children, and impaired reproduction.
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On Camp Lejeune and more than 700 army bases across the US, PFAS contamination is directly linked to aqueous film-forming foam used since the early 1970s to extinguish difficult fuel blazes. In 2016, the EPA established a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, the main PFAS compounds.
Although service members and their relatives are the most burdened, contamination originating from military sources plays a larger role in an insidious pattern of discrimination that affects marginalized minority communities.
Due to discriminatory redlining policies, land in minority neighborhoods was significantly undervalued and became a cost-efficient solution to situate army bases, industrial facilities, landfills, traffic routes, and other sources of toxic pollution. The higher toxic burden that vulnerable minority communities experience due to systemic prejudice is better known as “environmental racism.”
Frontline communities exposed to higher health risks due to environmental racism's lingering effects rely on state and federal authorities to establish a legal framework that keeps polluters accountable and protects vulnerable citizens.
A 2021 report notes that Colorado has the highest PFAS footprint in the country, with approximately 21,000 sites suspected of using or storing such compounds. Although industrial activities are the primary driver of PFAS’ prevalence, frontline communities also have to contend with contamination from several military sources.
Nine army bases in Colorado are known to have been affected by PFAS due to aqueous film-forming foam, with the most contaminated including Schriever Air Force Base (870,000 ppt), Buckley Space Force Base (formerly Buckley Air Force Base, 205,000 ppt), Fort Carson (156,000 ppt), U.S. Air Force Academy (72,000 ppt) and Peterson Space Force Base (formerly Peterson Air Force Base, 15,000 ppt). Significantly, PFAS from Peterson has previously contaminated the drinking water sources of downstream communities, with a CDC study finding PFAS compounds in the blood of residents in one exposed community registering concentrations 1.8 to 8.1 times the national average.
While the Air Force and Department of Defense have been involved in some remediation efforts, from distributing bottled water to installing filters and building treatment plants, their contributions are considered limited by Coloradans, given the lack of actual PFAS cleanup projects. Unlike Camp Lejeune, none of the contaminated Colorado bases are listed as Superfund sites.
Frontline communities exposed to higher health risks due to environmental racism’s lingering effects rely on state and federal authorities to establish a legal framework that keeps polluters accountable and protects vulnerable citizens. Since 2020, Colorado has enacted some of the country’s most stringent PFAS laws and adopted a PFAS narrative policy that closely follows the EPA’s 2016 advisories.
Federally, the National Defense Authorization Act will see aqueous film-forming foam phased out by 2024 and finance PFAS cleanup projects on contaminated installations, while the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will provide impacted communities with crucial investments to address pollution and other causes of environmental injustice. The Honoring Our PACT Act will provide improved health benefits and compensation for veterans and military families exposed to toxins in highly contaminated locations like Camp Lejeune.
Despite these encouraging developments, the DoD has yet to commence cleanup on any of the most affected bases in the country per NDAA’s provisions, and diseases resulting from exposure to PFAS aren’t recognized as presumptive conditions under HOPA. Moreover, while Colorado adopted the EPA’s 2016 guidelines, it falls behind other states that employ even stricter standards.
Still, Colorado has the opportunity to stay ahead of the game by implementing more effective PFAS standards that align with the EPA’s most current efforts to regulate these toxic compounds. With the goal of setting enforceable maximum contaminant levels in drinking water, the EPA has drastically reduced its non-binding advisories for PFOA and PFOS in June 2022 to a paltry 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt, respectively, illustrating the dangers these substances represent even at exceedingly low concentrations.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:22 a.m., Dec. 20, 2022, to accurately cite the source of drinking water contamination near Peterson Space Force Base.
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