Everyone deserves access to clean water. Unfortunately, major industries have failed to protect this right for many communities in Colorado, a reality that longtime Fountain Valley resident Liz Rosenbaum knows all too well. When her drinking water was contaminated by the toxic “forever chemicals” known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), Liz stepped up to make sure her community had the resources they needed to protect their health. She took the fight from her living room to the Colorado State House, joining a growing nationwide movement to stop PFAS from entering our waterways and our bodies.
Conservation Colorado is also dedicated to protecting Coloradans from PFAS contamination. We’re working toward a future in which the clothes we wear, the water we drink, and the products in our homes, schools, and workplaces are free of toxic chemicals. This year, we’re supporting a bill at the Colorado legislature to restrict the sale of consumer products with PFAS when safer alternatives exist, close loopholes that let big polluters continue to use toxic PFAS-containing firefighting foam, prevent the use of PFAS chemicals in oil and gas operations, and require further research on fertilizer contamination in agriculture.
We’re proud to have Liz with us in this fight.
I’ve lived in the Fountain Valley area, south of Colorado Springs, for 18 years. We moved to a little development in Widefield in 2003, when my husband was just getting out of the army. It was affordable, the elementary school was across the street and up the hill from us, and we just loved the community here. Our neighbors became some of our best friends. We called our kids the “Ketchum Crew” because we lived on Ketchum Drive and we were always trying to catch our kids as they ran from one house to the next.
Fountain Valley is surrounded by military installations: Schriever Space Force Base to the east, Fort Carson to the south, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex to the west, and Peterson Air Force Base to the north. As we found out, it’s easy to contaminate military communities. People don’t tend to find out or fight back, because they move every three or four years.
We knew that Fountain Creek, which flows into the aquifer where we got our tap water, had been contaminated several times already. But nothing prepared me for the toxic pollution we found out about in the summer of 2016.
At the time, I was super busy. I owned a restaurant. My daughter was in college, and my son was a sophomore in high school. I had also signed up to run for the El Paso County Commissioner seat—because apparently I wasn’t busy enough.
Then I read an article in the local paper that said our water was contaminated by something called “perfluorinated compounds.”
Our tap water came from the Widefield Water District. The EPA had just released a new study that linked perfluorinated compounds to cancer, birth defects, autoimmune disorders, and other health issues. The city of Fountain, and the Widefield and Security water districts, were named as locations where these chemicals (now known to be a family of toxic man-made chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) had been found in the drinking water, at levels above the recommended concentration for human health.
“Toxic PFAS chemicals had been found in the drinking water, at levels above the recommended concentration for human health. “
The news was scary, and there were so many unknowns. PFAS still aren’t regulated by the federal government. These chemicals never break down, yet we’ve been using them in everything. PFAS are found in everyday consumer products like non-stick pans, food packaging, and even baby’s clothing—but the health impacts are worst when they’re in high concentrations in drinking water.
The municipal water districts in Fountain Valley immediately switched to other sources—in some cases piping water in from Pueblo—but our rural neighbors were out of luck. We started buying bottled drinking water, not trusting that the tap water was safe. At the time, we didn’t know where this contamination came from or how long we’d been drinking poisoned water. The likely culprit was the Air Force Base, which for decades used a PFAS-containing foam to put out jet fuel fires. But there was no communication from elected officials, no jumping to action. It was just like, “Let’s wait and see.”
What everyone wanted to know was: how will this affect our health? In July of that year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) released a study that showed elevated rates of cancer in the Fountain Valley Area. At a community meeting at a local high school, representatives from CPDHE told everyone that the high cancer rates couldn’t necessarily be blamed on the contamination, since our community also had high rates of obesity and smoking.
Can you imagine being in a meeting of hundreds of people, with somebody up on the stage looking down on you and saying that? You hear, “Well, we don’t know how this chemical might impact you, but you’re all fat and you smoke anyway.” The crowd erupted in anger.
I was angry, too. In November of that year, I lost the county commissioner election. We still hadn’t gotten any real answers on the poisonous chemicals in our water. The Air Force pledged to fund a clean up, but they still weren’t admitting it was their fault. We were still drinking bottled water. I felt like no one was doing anything.
Eventually my husband said, “Well, almost 16,000 people voted for you, so clearly you are a leader for some of them. You should do something.” My mind started racing—I started jotting down ideas, thinking about a protest, or some other grand gesture. Eventually, I settled on just inviting some friends over to my house for a spaghetti dinner to try to figure out what the heck was going on.
That group grew from four friends in my living room to over 200 people with 30 main activists dedicated to making sure we had clean water. We called ourselves the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. Up until the pandemic, we met every month to educate ourselves about our water quality and advocate for equal access to clean water in our community.
It took a good year just to figure out what had happened and who we needed to talk to. For a while, the question was, “How do we get a seat at the table?” There’s a saying, “If you can’t find a seat at the table, bring your own chair.” But for a long time, we couldn’t even find the table.
The pivotal moment was when I went to a national PFAS conference in Boston, and met other people like me. They had learned their water was contaminated and didn’t have a clue what to do next.
Finally, we figured out how to get the EPA to listen to what we wanted: information on how this contamination impacted our health. We petitioned the EPA to include Fountain Valley in a study of five sites that had been impacted by PFAS. Later, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the CDC chose the Fountain Valley area as one of eight sites for an environmental and health study.
But we also realized that we didn’t have time to sit around and wait. The EPA takes forever to make new regulations, and meanwhile the evidence that PFAS can harm the immune system, cause high blood pressure during pregnancy, and increase risk of asthma, liver disease, and cancer is becoming clearer and clearer. If we wanted to get something done, it had to be at the state level. So in 2019, we ran and passed our first bill at the Colorado General Assembly to ban firefighting foams containing PFAS.
“There’s a saying, If you can’t find a seat at the table, bring your own chair. But for a long time, we couldn’t even find the table.”
Getting state legislation passed is a huge undertaking, but we’ve made progress, and I found out I loved doing it—I even ran for the State House. But at the same time, it’s unacceptable that the burden has been on us to try to figure out how to prevent our community from being poisoned.
Think about it. If I were to contaminate my neighbors drinking water and they got sick, I would be in prison within a year. But the government has done this to us, and after six years, we’re only now getting a federal health study. By this time, the evidence is going away; many of the people who drank contaminated water for years have moved.
The way I look at this, it is a massive crime scene. And it’s not being treated like one.
PFAS is a deadly toxic chemical, and corporations who were manufacturing it knew that for decades. I think we’ve become numb to the word “contaminated.” We were poisoned. Intentionally, for profit. To me, this is a human rights violation.
“PFAS is a deadly toxic chemical, and corporations who were manufacturing it knew that for decades. The way I look at this, it is a massive crime scene. And it’s not being treated like one. “
Now that I know what I know, six years later, I can just see how ill my whole community is. And no, it’s not because “we’re fat and we smoke.” The problem is generational poverty, low funding of schools, no hospital in the area, the lack of access to healthcare and quality grocery stores. And of course, the fact that we were poisoned by the federal government.
The burden isn’t just abstract. My husband and I have estimated that we’ve incurred $30,000 in medical bills taking care of ourselves from this contamination. Dealing with this and dedicating myself to advocacy and organizing severely impacted my personal finances. Fighting PFAS just became all-consuming, for zero pay. And yet my struggles were trivial compared to other coalition members, who lost family to cancer.
Thankfully, groups like Conservation Colorado and the Sierra Club have stepped in and made my life infinitely easier. Now, instead of putting the burden of this work on myself and other community members, I can call up Josh, Conservation Colorado’s Water Advocate, and he’ll help figure out how we can pass better policy. I trust Conservation Colorado to listen to community members like myself and do the work to make change happen.
Now, this year, we have a bill that will make huge strides towards preventing PFAS used in firefighting foam, oil and gas, and consumer products. Because we don’t need poisonous fire retardant in our children’s clothes or our food packaging, not to mention our drinking water.
The fact that my community was poisoned is a violation of our right to clean water. But together, we’re making strides towards a Colorado where this won’t happen again. I’ve taken my anger and turned into action. Won’t you join me? Let’s be more persistent than PFAS and put our lives and health as a priority over corporate greed and profits.