Legal recourse has begun to shape up for residents concerned with their contaminated drinking water in the Fountain, Security, Widefield areas, though justice is still distant.
Late Sunday night, the Denver-based Hannon Law Firm filed two class-action suits in federal court on behalf of residents affected by dangerous levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in the groundwater. One of the complaints seeks medical monitoring; the other, compensation for property damage. Crucially, the civil action pins wrongdoing not on Peterson Air Force Base (the likely source of contamination), but on the chemical manufacturers that supplied the contaminant itself.
The contaminant in question is Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) — a suppressant used to extinguish petroleum-based fires that contains the synthetic chemicals now linked to low birth weights, cancer and heart disease.
As was long anticipated, in August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released preliminary findings confirmed that training areas at Peterson where AFFF has been sprayed for decades are “possible sources” of drinking water contamination that warrant further inspection.
But the Air Force apparently has no obligation to abstain from the perfectly legal, commercially available product. As such, spokeswoman Shellie-Anne Espinosa told the Indy that Peterson currently has 2,404 gallons of AFFF in stock, still authorized for emergency use — half of that having been purchased between 2013-2014 (well after the Environmental Protection Agency began heeding flags first raised by scientists about the hazards of PFCs.) The base does have plans to replace the AFFF with something more environmentally benign, she said.
So these new class-action suits leave Peterson alone. Rather, they name the base’s AFFF suppliers as defendants. 3M, Ansul and National Foam, the complaints allege, “knew or should have known that the inclusion of PFCs in AFFF presented an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment.”
Though the proceedings are sure to turn up more evidence in more detail, the suit does offer some evidence for this claim out-of-the-gate. In the mid-80s, for example, 3M (the original and primary AFFF manufacturer) found through personnel review that the fluorochemicals bioaccumulate. Then in 2000, when the company announced the phase out of two types of PFCs — PFOS and PFOA — private and public information contradicted themselves.
As the lawsuit maintains, an internal memo from the EPA stated that "3M data supplied to EPA indicated that these chemicals are very persistent in the environment, have a strong tendency to accumulate in human and animal tissues and could potentially pose a risk to human health and the environment over the long term... [PFOS] appears to combine Persistence, Bioaccumulation, and Toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree” while 3M’s press release insisted that "our products are safe" while back-patting their "principles of responsible environmental management" as motivating the phaseout.