By KEENAN WRIGHT
The New York Times recently published an article listing Colorado as one of the states with perfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) detection. The three areas affected by the substance — located in Colorado Springs, Fountain, and Security-Widefield — contain close to a population of 80,000 people. These three cities are fewer than 20 miles from Colorado College. After reading the article, CC professors Eli Fahrenkrug and Tyler Cornelius began to get involved by introducing the issue of water quality to their classes.
In the late fall of 2017, Fahrenkrug was teaching his Chemistry 342 course and assigned students a final analytical research project. He mentioned the local Colorado Springs water quality issue and encouraged students to study the water quality at Venetucci Farms as a project topic. Being a resident of Security-Widefield and visitor of the farm’s pumpkin patch annually, I connected to this project instantly; I wanted to give back and inform the community.
Before Venetucci Farms shut down, CC was a consistent purchaser of its produce. Our class initially hypothesized that the levels of PFAS at the farm were high, and that these compounds would also test high after flowing through the filter that the Air Force provided. Preliminary results indicated that levels of PFAS were 35 times the EPA limit and that while the filter adsorbed long chain compounds, short chain compounds still passed through with less than 40 percent filtration efficiency. By the end of the course, more questions than answers remained. The first: how do the levels of contamination differ in surface waters? What do levels look like across the three cities with respect to ground water? And lastly, how is the contamination moving over time?
Months later, Cornelius taught Environmental Science 421, in which students contextualized the contamination and studied the issue through a legal lens and an environmental justice perspective. This course provided the framework for students to articulate the issue and offer insight into actions that can be taken. Part of their research included studying how different states handled the problem, including DuPont, W.Va. Students in the class had the opportunity to meet environmental lawyer Robert Billot, the lawyer who broke the issue of PFAS contamination in Dupont. Students investigated how settlements do not set precedents, but inspire research, conversation, and policy. At the end of the course, students created an online resource via story map and presented on the contamination case, titled: The Hidden Water Crisis in Security-Widefield and Fountain. Further questions emerged about how to communicate the science to the community and get more people involved in the issue.
In response, during the summer of 2018, both professors founded the Fountain Valley Water Study (FVWS), a non-profit organization committed to studying the contamination as well as being an educational resource to the affected community. The vision of the project is to monitor the contamination levels in surface waters, private wells, and city water sources and to provide the community with information on these compounds. The non-profit has been in close collaboration with local organizations such as the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition and is extending to the Sierra Club’s Fountain Creek Water Sentinels. The project can be more than an educational tool; it can also connect the CC community with the Colorado Springs Community.
The first step in the collaboration was spreading the word that the FVWS would be testing private wells and connecting with well owners. This past summer, I helped send out mailers to gauge interest and gain participants. Simultaneously, the first preliminary study was a study of the local surface waters, Sand Creek and Fountain Creek, for traces of PFAS. Using a recently developed analysis technique from University of Colorado – Colorado Springs paired with geospatial mapping software, this study answered the following questions: where is the point source of contamination? To what extent is the contamination spreading south? Which PFAS compounds are the highest in concentration? A few findings included that Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) alone contained five times the EPA limit at locations near Peterson Air Force Base and that Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) had concentrations as high as 70 parts per trillion (ppt). While PFHxS is not being considered as a contaminant, this contamination is mobile.
We hope to further this research by studying how these compounds move over time and how far north and south the contamination spreads. The next phase of research is to compare how these compounds move in groundwater versus surface water. We also hope to get more participation from students interested in this project (whether through scientific study, canvasing, website design, or any other capacity). If interested, please contact Cornelius or Fahrenkrug: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Ultimately, this research aims to further the conversations around social and environmental justice.