Colorado passes limits on dangerous ‘forever’ chemicals

As federal regulations lag, state water officials unanimously pass new PFAS limits.

 

This story was originally published by Colorado Public Radio and is republished here with permission.

Colorado has its first policy to regulate so-called “forever” chemicals. 

The state’s Water Quality Control Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to enact a policy to put new limits on per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. The class of chemicals is a common ingredient in everything from nonstick pans to foam used to smother flames from jet fuel. 

A growing body of scientific evidence has linked the chemicals to a range of health problems, including cancer and pregnancy issues. Meanwhile, federal efforts to regulate the chemicals have lagged, leaving states to take action on their own. 

Liz Rosenbaum, founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, was relieved to see Colorado join the list of states cracking down on the chemicals. 

“I’m in shock. We’ve been working on this for over four years.” 

“I’m in shock,” she said just after the vote. “We’ve been working on this for over four years.” 

Rosenbaum’s community just south of Colorado Springs is widely seen as ground-zero for Colorado's growing PFAS pollution crisis. In 2016, scientists found elevated levels of a specific PFAS in the drinking water for Security, Widefield and Fountain. The study traced the contamination to firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base. Two years later, another study found elevated levels of the same chemical in community members’ blood. 

Further testing has since revealed the chemicals in waterways across the state. Recent results from a state study found four water sources where levels exceeded a health guideline set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008. All of the samples had some detectable levels of the chemicals. 

In an effort to control the problem, the Colorado Water Quality Control Division proposed rules to require wastewater treatment plants and industrial sites to monitor the chemicals. It also established the authority for the state to limit the chemicals in future wastewater permits. 

El Paso County, Colorado, resident Liz Rosenbaum spends about $70 per month on bottled drinking water rather than drink from her tap.
Dan Boyce/CPR News

But the focus on wastewater was met with a fierce backlash from cities and private interests. 

Three days before the commission hearing, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Greeley joined utilities and water districts in demanding regulators pause deliberations over the new rules. The motion to vacate claimed the rules focused on wastewater treatment plants, which do not add PFAS to water systems. 

The groups called on the regulators to instead focus the source of the chemicals, like companies making carpet products or consumers using nonstick pans. 

The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which serves more than 2 million people around metro Denver, put an especially shocking number behind their objection. If the state required wastewater districts to clean up the chemicals, it could cost ratepayers over $700 million. 

Representatives for the Colorado Water Quality Control Division dismissed those concerns. Manufacturers and airfields would also face new scrutiny to clean up the chemicals, which means the wastewater district probably wouldn’t end up stuck with the problem. Under the rules, the district also likely wouldn’t face any of the new limits on PFAS until 2031. Meg Parish, a permit manager with the division, said by then it could be far cheaper to clean up the chemicals.

“Better technologies for treatment are advancing all the time,” she said. 

While environmental advocates supported the regulation, many said they wished it would go further. The limits for the chemicals align with health recommendations from the EPA.

Rebecca Curry, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group EarthJustice, said recent studies have found much lower levels of the chemicals could be unsafe. 

“We think this is a really critical first step and we’re glad to see Colorado taking initiative in absence of federal action,” Curry said. 

In the end, the commission came down squarely on the side of environmental advocates. Commissioner Rick Hum said he wished “forever” chemicals had stayed inside the laboratories of U.S. chemical companies. 

“I wish 3M had never invented this class of chemicals.”

“I wish 3M had never invented this class of chemicals. I wish they never sold those rights to DuPont knowing the health risks. I wish commercial interests didn’t make them ubiquitous in our world,” he said. 

“But here we are.” 

Sam Brasch covers the state legislature for Colorado Public RadioEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.