Fountain residents board bus to School of Mines to see celebrity lawyer who fought PFAS contamination 

click to enlarge Environmental attorney Rob Bilott addresses the crowd in Golden. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Environmental attorney Rob Bilott addresses the crowd in Golden.

If you haven’t heard of Rob Bilott, you’ve probably heard of Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo (best known for roles in The Kids Are Alright and The Avengers) portrays environmental lawyer Bilott in the new film Dark Waters. The movie chronicles the fight Bilott waged against chemical manufacturing company DuPont, which dumped toxic, man-made chemicals near a West Virginia community for decades, sickening cattle, wildlife and humans.

It was Bilott, not Ruffalo, who drew a passionate group of about 20 community members to board a bus — an outing coordinated by the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition and the Colorado School of Mines, and sponsored by the Herbert L. and Doris S. Young Environmental Issues Symposium — from Fountain to Golden for a keynote speech by the famous lawyer, and subsequent panel featuring researchers and advocates.

Many of those community members, who live in the area surrounding Peterson Air Force Base, have a personal connection to Bilott’s work. That’s because the firefighting foam that was used at Peterson for decades contained the same kinds of chemicals DuPont dumped in West Virginia, contaminating the public drinking water in the Fountain, Security-Widefield and Stratmoor communities.

Those water districts have switched sources and changed filtration methods since 2015, when news of the contamination began to spread. But many residents who’ve lived in the area for years fear they could still face health effects from the per- and polyfluorinated substances, better known as PFAS, that spread from the firefighting foam into their water. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, or in humans.

Health effects from the most-studied PFAS chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, include kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, thyroid disease and high cholesterol. The EPA has taken preliminary steps toward regulating that chemical and one other PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but there are potentially thousands more related chemicals that haven’t been as well studied, but which scientists fear could cause similar problems.

“What I think everybody is wanting to know is ‘OK, this is in the water — how specifically does it affect me?’” says Patricia Kulbreth, who traveled on the bus to the School of Mines in Golden with her husband, James, to hear Bilott speak.

The couple has lived in Fountain since 1994 and became interested in the subject on a “personal and a professional level,” Patricia Kulbreth said, due to her husband’s work in water remediation on Fort Carson.

The School of Mines is one of several universities at the forefront of new research into PFAS. In one upcoming study — funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — experts from the school will make up part of a multidisciplinary team, led by the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, to examine the health effects of PFAS in the areas surrounding Peterson Air Force Base.

During his keynote address, Bilott told the story of how he first learned about PFAS: In 1998, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, called his law firm in Cincinnati, where Bilott’s work was mostly focused on helping companies comply with federal and state regulations on toxic chemicals.

The farmer explained to Bilott that hundreds of his cows had been dying, and he thought he knew why: “Right next to his property was a landfill,” Bilott recalled, “and out of that landfill he could see a pipe, and out of that pipe was white foam... going into the creek that his cows were drinking out of.”

The landfill was owned by chemical manufacturing giant DuPont, which made a fortune from Teflon nonstick pans created using PFOA — the PFAS chemical that polluted the Parkersburg community.

Bilott began looking into the company’s documents and eventually centered on PFOA as the contaminant. PFOA was not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, despite DuPont’s early studies linking the chemical to cancer and birth defects in animals.

As part of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit, DuPont had to fund an independent scientific panel that conducted a massive study into the health effects of PFOA. The panel’s findings definitively connected PFOA with an increased risk of certain health problems in the Parkersburg community, and by 2016, word was spreading about the dangers of PFAS — including to communities south of Colorado Springs.

Around that time, Bilott said, Ruffalo gave him a call after reading about PFAS in a news article, saying, “How in the world is something like this going on in the United States and I’ve never heard of it?”

Ruffalo wanted to make a movie to increase awareness about PFAS.

“I agreed, let’s get this movie out, let’s get the documentary out,” Bilott said, referring to the 2018 documentary The Devil We Know and 2019 film Dark Waters starring Ruffalo. Mark Favors, an Army veteran who grew up near Peterson Air Force Base and now lives in New York City, learned of the contamination around that time. He says 16 of his family members have been diagnosed with kidney cancer, all of whom lived in the area.

“It’s just hard to get any type of justice on the issue,” said Favors, who joined Bilott, along with Chris Higgins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the School of Mines; John Adgate, professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health; and Tracie White, remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; on a panel following Bilott’s keynote.

Favors pointed out that the Department of Defense — responsible for much of the pollution caused by firefighting foam — has a budget that makes the Environmental Protection Agency’s pale in comparison. Thus, he says, it’s nearly impossible to hold the DoD accountable for its use of PFAS.

Though the DoD has stopped using the foam for training exercises, and now stocks trucks and airplanes with a new version that it says is safer (despite containing different kinds of fluorinated chemicals), activists like Favors say it’s important the agency funds compensation for individuals and families affected by the agency’s past actions.

“I was really glad that Mark Favors was on the stage,” said Tyler Cornelius, an assistant professor in the environmental program at Colorado College who traveled on the bus from Fountain.

“I feel like he brought a perspective from the community that’s often lost in discussions about PFAS, which is asking for responsibility, asking for a more substantive response from the federal, state and local governments,” Cornelius said, adding that all of those onstage provided interesting information.

Kathy Pullara, who’s lived in Fountain for most of her 61 years, says she enjoyed the chance to learn more about PFAS from the panelists.

“I just think the more people are aware of the problem, the more people might be inclined to do something about it,” Pullara said.


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