By Jerd Smith
In the halls of the Colorado State Capitol drinking fountains are in easy reach, and grabbing a quick drink of cool, clear, odorless water is an automatic act.
But just minutes away, in dozens of industrialized neighborhoods in North Denver, Commerce City and unincorporated Adams County, many homeowners and apartment dwellers never drink their tap water.
Tens of thousands of people in this area have been exposed to contaminated water over the years. Convincing them finally that their water is now safe to drink is a tough sell.
In a Commerce City bungalow on Kearney Drive, Armando Guardiola and his family are sitting in a small kitchen, eating posole from brightly colored bowls. The water served for this meal did not come from their tap. Instead, it came from a large, pale blue five-gallon jug perched on the edge of the sink.
It has been this way since Guardiola, a retired railway worker, and his parents moved into this bungalow in 1982.
Their tap water, he says, as his brother and sister interpret, is full of minerals that leave a residue everywhere. Sometimes it has an odor or a strange taste. The family’s water comes from the South Adams Water and Sanitation District and meets all the state standards for water quality and safety. But this is no comfort to the people who live here.
“They used to say, don’t drink the water,” Guardiola said. “Then, they came out about 15 years ago and said it was better. But we don’t trust this. A lot of people here have skin rashes. They have lost their hair. It has been a continuous problem.”
Two water bills
Parts of north Denver, south Adams County, and Commerce City have a legacy of water contamination that dates back more than half a century and is tied to aging lead service lines, in Denver, and various industrial activities farther north.
Wave after wave of pollutants have been discovered in this area, from contaminants that leaked from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the 1980s, to contamination from the local oil refinery whose lights dot the skyline at dawn and dusk.
Now, so-called forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been discovered in the groundwater in Commerce City and have been linked to firefighting foam used up until 2018 at the nearby Denver Fire Training Academy, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The City of Denver disputes that finding. It declined an interview request, citing potential litigation.
The South Adams Water and Sanitation District (SAWSD) says it must spend $45 million to $70 million to build a new treatment plant to remove this PFAS from its raw water.
Will it ever end, residents ask. They can’t answer that question.
Instead, many opt to pay two water bills: one at the local water filling station, where they often spend $10 to $50 a week to buy water for drinking and cooking, for watering plants and caring for their pets. This is in addition to their monthly water and sewer bills from the local utility, in this case the South Adams Water and Sanitation District. Utility costs vary depending on location and water use.
Armando’s brother Beto says there is little hope in the community that their tap water will ever be drinkable.
“To go back to the tap water we think is risky,” Beto said. “We’ve been told it’s good. We’ve been told it’s bad. We hope what happened in Jackson, Mississippi, doesn’t happen here,” referring to the decades-long problems with Jackson’s water system that finally collapsed earlier this year after it was inundated by flood waters.
Patricia Ferrero heads Protégete, an environmental justice initiative housed within Conservation Colorado.
“Honestly it all comes down to trust” Ferrero said. “I don’t know if there is one thing that would re-establish trust with these communities. Industry is so close to home. There is too much evidence that it is a sacrifice zone.”
Cultivando, another environmental justice group which is focused on Commerce City, recently launched a tap water testing program funded by the University of Denver. It has signed up 30 homeowners in the area, who have agreed to allow specially trained community members to come into their homes and gather water samples to have them privately tested. These residents get their water from various sources, including some from privately owned wells.
Once results are in, the activists will consider what next steps need to be taken. This could mean pushing for better water treatment or new indoor piping, or, if results confirm that the water is, in fact, safe to drink, looking at how they can work alongside the state health department and water providers to reassure residents on this point. In this way, the community organizers hope to begin rebuilding trust in the local water along with the government agencies and water utilities charged with protecting their water and their health.
Mike Wireman, a former national groundwater specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is running the Commerce City testing program for Cultivando.
“We have heard for some time, from residents who live in parts of Commerce City, that their water tastes bad, smells bad, feels bad. Bacteria can cause that. We know they have a problem, but I don’t believe that it is related to the water that leaves the Commerce City treatment plant. It gets back in somewhere between the water treatment plant and the homes,” Wireman said.
The problem may be inside these older homes. “The houses that were built were not constructed with the best materials. They were not $500,000 homes. They were built to accommodate industrial workers,” he said.
In addition to neighborhood activists, lawmakers have also taken note. In 2021, at lawmakers’ request, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment created an environmental justice action task force in an effort to forge better relationships with communities whose water quality has been harmed by industrial contamination.
“We take these issues very seriously,” said Nicole Rowan, head of CDPHE’s Water Quality Division.
The state has also begun working with the City of Denver to oversee the removal of PFAS from soils around the Denver Fire Training Academy in Adams County. How long the cleanup might take isn’t clear. But Rowan said some mitigation work at the site has begun.
Generations of distrust
For the South Adams Water and Sanitation District, the legacy of contamination is a powerful, cultural constant. The district has built two treatment plants and is planning a third to deal with the issues, which stem both from industrial activities and naturally occurring minerals present in groundwater.
The discovery of PFAS in its groundwater wells in 2018 added another major item to its long list of industrial woes. The district immediately shut down wells that were too contaminated to salvage at the time, and began aggressively treating its other wells, as well as blending with clean water purchased from Denver, to meet federal PFAS safety standards. According to its 2022 Consumer Confidence Report, the district has been successful in meeting all federal and state water quality standards.
The district has spent millions of dollars and has some of the most sophisticated on-site testing equipment in the state, if not the country, according to Kipp Scott, SAWSD’s manager. Its high-tech labs allow the utility to test its raw water and treated water almost continuously to ensure it is safe. But new PFAS standards that are close to being finalized by the federal government will mean more has to be done.
Scott remains deeply worried that the plume of contamination moving from the fire academy toward his district’s wells won’t be stopped before it gets any closer. In the interim, the district is spending some $8 million a year to buy clean surface water supplies from Denver Water to mix with its own, to ensure it can continue to deliver clean water until the contamination is removed.
Equally distressing is the community’s skepticism about the district’s efforts to deliver clean water to them, Scott said.
“It’s been a public relations nightmare,” he said.
The district is also plagued with naturally occurring hard water, which damages plumbing and can cause skin rashes and hair loss in some. Last year, the district built a $60 million water-softening plant that now delivers water that is much softer to residents.
Many of its customers still don’t know the water has been improved or do not believe it.
Theresa Friess, SAWSD’s public affairs coordinator, was hired to help educate and engage customers.
“It’s been a hard conversation, in part because it’s hard to hear that our customers feel this way,” said Friess. “But we have tried to increase our outreach and we are having more conservations with non-English speaking residents as well.”
The district has hosted tours and open houses, and has had various government officials meet with residents and publicly drink the water that flows from the taps in an effort to prove it is safe.
To date, there is little if any belief among nearly two dozen residents across north Denver, Commerce City and unincorporated Adams County interviewed by Fresh Water News that the water won’t make them sick.
“We have been drinking this water for years,” said one woman at a meeting convened by Cultivando in Commerce City last month on the private tap water testing program. Speaking through an interpreter, she said, “They think they can come in here and take one drink of water to convince us it is safe? What does that prove?”
Are your pipes okay?
In Denver’s Elyria, Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods, Denver Water has been working since 2019 to replace tens of thousands of lead service lines to protect its customers from lead contamination. Testing had shown that lead was leaching from the pipes into the water that reached the tap. The work is going on across the city, including such neighborhoods as Hilltop and Washington Park. Lead service lines are more likely to be an issue for homes built before 1951.
The agency replaced the old lead service lines in front of Tony Garcia’s Elyria house two years ago.
Garcia, a well-known historian and executive director of Su Teatro, and others in the neighborhood are happy about the remediation project. Some even drink the water now. But the utility is still almost 10 years away from having all the city’s lead service lines replaced, even with a new federal infrastructure grant to speed the process.
Garcia still uses filters provided by Denver Water, and the utility still tests his water periodically. Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said the ongoing testing is part of its lead monitoring program. For many of these older homes, the water may still contain lead, leaching not from the main delivery lines, which are lead-free, or from the customer-owned service lines Denver Water is replacing, but from the aging plumbing systems within the homes themselves. No amount of lead is safe to drink.
Garcia doesn’t drink the tap water and has no plans to do so. If his home’s pipes need to be replaced, he said, it will have to be done by the next homeowner or someone else.
CDPHE’s Rowan said her agency is researching whether some of its grant money could be accessed by homeowners to be used for in-home pipe replacement, but isn’t clear yet whether that is possible.
What the neighborhood has endured, not just with lead contamination but also with air and groundwater pollution, “would not be tolerated in other communities,” Garcia said.
In addition to the ongoing risk to public health, cost is a major concern, for residents and the water districts and state agencies charged with keeping the water safe.
On a recent Friday morning, student chef Paul Tyrell is filling up several of the ever-present five-gallon pale blue jugs at a private water station in Commerce City. His pregnant partner sits in the front seat as he hauls the empty jugs out of the back seat, fills them at the water station, and lugs them to the car.
Here five gallons of water costs $1.50, or 30 cents a gallon. Tyrell will fill up all his containers once a week, at a cost of $7 to $10. If he could use his apartment’s tap water from SAWSD, it would cost less than 5 cents a gallon. The district charges $5.24 for the first 12,000 gallons used.
“I wish we would have better water,” Tyrell said. “We don’t use the water in our apartment because it makes us feel sick.”
Denver Water has raised residential water rates to help pay for its lead remediation work, in addition to issuing bonds and using cash on hand to cover for the $168 million overall project cost. It has also been approved for a $76 million federal infrastructure grant to help accelerate the work.
In South Adams County, the federal government paid for the district’s primary water treatment plant, completed in 1989, as part of the Superfund cleanup at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
But since 2018, the district has been forced to uses its own money, and some state grants, to fund the $3 million price tag on new water treatment processes along with testing equipment related to the PFAS contamination.
Residents are paying just over $4.50 a month additionally to cover the cost of the new water softening plant, but Scott says the district doesn’t believe they should have to pay to cover the cost of the new $45 million to $70 PFAS treatment plant. The district plans to apply for federal infrastructure improvement funds to get that done.
“Our residents should not have to bear this cost for the additional treatment we are going to have to put in place. But the new plant is going to be less expensive than purchasing Denver water over the long haul.”
It’s not just water bills that are expensive. Residents are often approached by sales people suggesting the water is so unsafe that they need to buy expensive in-home treatment systems and filters.
South Adams Water Quality Supervisor Kevin Pustulka said he recently went out to a home where a woman was preparing to buy a $20,000 in-home softening system that she didn’t need. “Please don’t,” he told her.
His message to everyone else: “The next time someone offers to sell you an in-home water device, call me.”
Olga Gonzalez hopes they do. She is executive director of Cultivando and has watched people in these North Metro communities struggle for years. That things may be changing is possible, she said, but her level of skepticism remains high.
“We are seeing them [the CDPHE and South Adams] ask what our communities need and be transparent and explain things in a way residents can understand. I feel hopeful that finally community members will be heard. We have been very clear that we don’t want these agencies to just check boxes and say they have been in touch with the community.”
For the environmental justice activists on the ground, after years of battling industrial pollution and institutional indifference, they are convinced the way to deliver safe tap water and to convince residents that it won’t make them ill, lies in rebuilding trust between residents and the government.
“In the end, we don’t want to be residents’ go-to,” Gonzalez said. “We want them to go to the people who are paid to protect them, and take care of their health.”
This project was made possible, in part, by funding from the Colorado Media Project.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.