A study from Earthjustice blames the Suncor refinery in Commerce City and firefighting foam for leaching cancer-causing ‘forever chemicals’ PFAs into the municipal water supply for several Adams County cities. And it’s legal.
A water source for Thornton — the South Platte River — runs past that facility. According to City Spokesperson Todd Barnes, a portion of Thornton’s water comes from the South Platte river, but they grab it before the Suncor facility.
“Thornton currently gets most of its South Platte surface water above where Suncor impacts the South Platte via the Burlington Canal,” he said.
However, Barnes said the city is concerned about PFAS from the Suncor facility impacting their water supply. They are actively investigating their PFAS sources.
“Thornton is actively engaged in an investigation to determine the source(s) of our pollution and will identify and pursue those potentially responsible parties once that investigation is complete,” he said.
Earthjustice pointed to a study they funded. Conducted by Westwater Hydrology, they found connections between PFAS found in both Sand Creek and the South Platte River – which provides water used by Commerce City, Brighton, Thornton and Aurora– to the Suncor refinery.
According to a news release from Earthjustice, “the study found that Suncor’s 2021 discharges from just one outfall, 020, account for 16-47% of the total PFAS loading in Sand Creek and 3-18% of the total PFAS loading in the South Platte.”
“They have this large flume of contaminated groundwater that underlies the facility that is highly contaminated with PFAS from decades of using PFAS-containing foam,” said Caitlin Miller, senior associate attorney for Earthjustice.
She said that water leaks into the Sand Creek before it is treated by Suncor, which then makes its way down to the South Platte.
Miller said the study is credible because it’s based on Suncor’s own monitoring data and was independently done. The study was also peer-reviewed.
Loa Esquilin Garcia, a spokesperson for Suncor, disagrees.
“The Westwater report is inaccurate, misleading, and should not be relied upon. It significantly overstates Suncor’s PFAS contributions to the South Platte River by ignoring upstream PFAS sources in Sand Creek that are not from the refinery, ignoring other Non-refinery PFAS contributions to the South Platte River, and selectively using data from only five days that are not representative of current conditions to exaggerate the PFAS contributions from Suncor’s Outfall 020A,” she wrote in an email.
Thornton has a history of PFAS contaminating their drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency set a new health advisory on June 15 at 0.0004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.
In May 2022, the Thornton Water Treatment Plant measured 7.1 parts per trillion for PFOA and 3.5 parts per trillion for PFOS. The Wes Brown Water Treatment Plant saw 5.4 parts per trillion for PFOA and 2.0 parts per trillion for PFOS.
Those levels are over 1,000 times higher than the health advisories. Barnes said meeting the new advisory will be costly with the need to update and upgrade water treatment facilities.
On Jan. 30, The City of Thornton announced they filed suit in federal court against multiple chemical manufacturers, alleging that their products contaminated portions of their water supply with PFAS. They want them on the hook for clean-up costs.
“The city of Thornton alleges in the lawsuit that firefighting foam made with these companies’ chemical products have unlawfully contaminated a portion of the city’s surface and ground water supply to various degrees over recent Environmental Protection Agency’s Health Advisory levels,” a news release from the city reads.
Thornton Deputy City Attorney Adam Stephens said in the news release that the companies knew, or should have known, the chemicals were harmful to the environment and public health.
Politics, lobbying and safety
In 2019, the state passed HB19-1279 which restricted the sale of certain firefighting foams. But the bill had exemptions, like airports and refineries.
“For use at a gasoline special fuel, or jet fuel storage and distribution facility that is supplied by a pipeline, vessel, or refinery;” the bill reads.
HB22-1345, passed in 2022, aimed to close that loophole by repealing that section and the initially submitted bill did so. However, as the bill process moved forward, the repeal was taken out of the signed version.
Roger Hudson, a spokesperson for Colorado House Republicans, said that Republican Rep. Mary Bradfield, a co-sponsor of the 2022 bill, declined to interview and required written questions and answers. Hudson said in a phone call that Bradfield may not remember the process of the 2022 bill.
In Bradfield’s responses, sent to Colorado Community Media by Colorado House Republican staff members, she noted that her original bill, Suncor, was not exempt from regulations.
She didn’t see any loophole in the 2019 bill.
“In 2019, the focus was to eliminate as much PFAS as possible in firefighting foam and to take legislative steps to ensure this dangerous chemical would not leach into groundwater. As far as I’m aware, there was no intentional loophole,” Bradfield is attributed to writing.
Democrat Sen. Lisa Cutter, a co-sponsor of the 2022 bill, said she knew the original bill would need to be cut and amended.
“I wasn't 100% thrilled with all the changes we made last year, but we passed a bill that was really significant and really meaningful, and that's part of the process, negotiating along the way,” she said.
One of those negotiations came from fire departments, she said. Cutter explained a concern with catastrophic fires at places like Suncor played a role in keeping the exemption. She also noted federal lawmakers will soon address firefighting foam through their PFAS legislation, and alternatives may be on the horizon.
“We know that there's alternatives coming out, and the PFAS will need to go away,” Cutter said.
Deputy Chief of Operations for North Metro Fire Jeff Bybee said their fire district replaced all PFAS foams on their trucks in 2018. However, they do carry PFAS-containing foams at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport due to an FAA regulation and their ability to put out certain types of fires.
It comes down to safety.
“The FAA has required a PFAS containing foams at airports because that type of foam has exceptional film formation properties,” he said.
Those fires are similar to those at refineries.
It’s a balance of safety because experts have warned that PFAS can lead to numerous health risks. Bybee said that’s why they eliminated all the PFAS they were able to, and are waiting for an alternative to replace the remaining ones.
The debate on health effects
An opposing force to the 2022 bill was the American Chemistry Council, and they sent lobbyists to the Capital, according to records from the Secretary of State. Cutter said the ACC “lobbied hard.”
In Bradfield’s attributed statement, she said the ACC identified products that contained intentionally added PFAS.
“This helped us identify which products retailers would need to remove from their shelves and also helped in letting manufacturers know they couldn’t market products that intentionally added PFAS in Colorado,” the statement reads.
Cutter noted that the ACC wanted to change the definition of PFAS, but she wasn’t in favor.
“We did not want to mess with that because it's not proven that any kind of PFAS is safe,” she said.
In an email, the American Chemistry Council said that not all PFAS should be categorized in the same way.
“PFAS are a diverse universe of chemistries with differing health and environmental profiles. These differences have been recognized by various regulatory and scientific bodies, including the EPA. All PFAS are not the same, and they should not all be regulated the same way,” the email reads.
The Council also said that health risks are different among PFAS.
“Most experts also agreed that it is inappropriate to assume equal toxicity/potency across the diverse class of PFAS. The US EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap and National PFAS Testing Strategy also recognize distinctions within the broad class of PFAS,” the email reads.
Dr. Ned Calonge, Associate Dean for Public Health Practice at the Colorado School of Public Health co-authored the report Guidance on PFAS Exposure, Testing, and Clinical Follow-Up.
“If people are trying to say ‘these PFAS don't have any human health effects,’ it’s likely because we haven't studied them,” he said.
His report looked at seven different types of PFAS and said the health risks do vary. They don’t have a molecular connection on how PFAS might cause human disease, but they have extensive evidence on the association between PFAS levels and human disease.
Given that, there still is uncertainty with PFAS due to the difficulty to study them. Calonge said there’s enough uncertainty that people should try to reduce their exposure to the chemicals.
He said there’s sufficient evidence of an association between PFAS and a decreased antibody response, increased cholesterol, decrease in infant and fetal growth and increased risk of kidney cancer.
“For me as a public health person, trying to come down to what I think might be the most protective of public health would be to treat them as a class and recognize that there may be some PFAS whose health risks are less or even negligible, but we just don't know,” he said.
Cutter emphasized human health is more important than profits.
“Industry is important, what companies do to make our lives better every day is really important. But do we protect corporate profit and corporate interests above health and human safety?” said Cutter.