Adapting in the Midst of a Pandemic

June 16, 2020

PFAS testing interface

Terracon Meets Unprecedented Challenges During Statewide PFAS Sampling in Colorado

Imagine the logistics around sampling more than 800 groundwater and surface water locations for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) across the state of Colorado as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.  PFAS got their start more than 80 years ago when they were developed for non-stick coatings, waterproof fabrics, Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) and other uses. The environmental impact of the prevalent use of PFAS continues to be an elevated concern.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) learned several communities within the state had discovered PFAS in drinking water associated with industrial usage and firefighting training. PFAS-impacted drinking water is not new to Colorado communities.  Five of Colorado’s 64 counties have documented PFAS contamination above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Health Advisory Level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), roughly the equivalent of a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. On September 17, 2019 CDPHE issued the “Action Plan for Toxic and Firefighting Foam and Related Chemicals” in response to “an emerging, urgent public health challenge” impacting drinking water for the communities of Colorado. As part of the action plan, a $500,000 emergency fund was developed to fund free testing of all eligible water supply systems across the state. The six-month testing period began in February 2020.

In March 2020, the management of a straightforward sampling project became significantly more complex with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Recognizing PFAS-impacted public water supplies would affect the state long after the pandemic was over, the CDPHE determined it was in the best interest of public health to proceed with sampling. Terracon’s offices in Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Colo., Manchester, Vt., Olathe, Kan., and Downers Grove, Ill. worked together to develop innovative solutions to meet this unprecedented challenge.

Remote sampling prioritized safety

Initially, the project approach included sampling and support groups in the northern, central, and southern areas of Colorado using Terracon’s  offices local to these areas. Logistically, allowing some facilities to sample their own water supplies with the support of Terracon staff as well as Terracon sampling was challenging. All samples collected were individually checked for integrity and consolidated for overnight shipping to the testing laboratory.

Fast Facts – 2020 PFAS in Public Drinking Water Systems Sampling Program  
Eligible Water Systems 895
Enrolled Systems 435
Systems Enrolled 49%
People Served by Enrolled Systems (estimate) 4,563,918
People Served by Enrolled Systems (estimate) (%) 80%

In March CDPHE reported the first cases of COVID-19 in Summit and Douglas Counties, Colorado. The Terracon program management team became increasingly concerned about the ability to execute the program as designed. Working with our client partner, communication with CDPHE significantly increased as Colorado communities began to consider travel restrictions and non-essential business suspension.

CDPHE asked the Terracon team if the PFAS Sampling Program, as outlined, could be modified to incorporate escalating concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of the complex logistics already established and currently being implemented. CDPHE considered the PFAS Sampling program as “essential to the communities of Colorado” according to David Dani, Emerging Contaminants Coordinator.

The Terracon program management team developed a modified delivery and retrieval approach which included a massive enhancement to the sampling supply direct shipping program. Employees packaged and shipped sampling kits from their homes to keep the project moving. In addition, all travel associated with the program was limited to “day trips” to further minimize potential exposure to sampling personnel. Terracon personnel employed enhanced personal protective measures with the use of disinfectant wipes prior to handling sampling supplies, personal face mask protection, and social distancing throughout program implementation.

In addition, all involved parties were working to continue to implement the program amidst personal and family COVID 19-exposure concerns. Daily team check-ins via text, emails and Team videoconference calls were instituted to monitor the physical and mental health of the involved individuals including CDPHE-involved personnel and Terracon personnel.

Information at a Glance

The need for up-to-date information on more than 800 PFAS tests was apparent, especially when the project logistics became significantly more complicated due to the pandemic. Working with CDPHE’s Geospatial Information System (GIS) group and Emerging Contaminant personnel, Terracon’s GIS group developed a project dashboard to manage the large quantity of data currently available for the eligible public water supplies, and to build a platform for managing the data from the lab testing (estimated to be more than 16,100 test results). dashboard interface Development and implementation of the database was an essential tool for managing the logistics of the large sampling program.

When the first shelter-in-place orders for Colorado were issued on March 18, Terracon’s GIS team moved quickly to enhance the PFAS Program Dashboard to link the Center for Disease Control (CDC) database for real time COVID-19 statistics related to all 64 Colorado counties. The dashboard provided a visual representation of developing COVID-19 cases in real-time and included counties with restrictions related to non-essential travel.

On-time, Under-budget Results

Nearly 30 Terracon employees from Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, and New Hampshire worked to complete the sampling program. Challenging times for the entire country highlighted Terracon’s ability to seamlessly integrate data management, health and safety, field activities, and effective communications as Colorado communities sheltered-in-place.

2020 Sampling Program Amidst COVID-19  
Total PFAs Samples Managed    >900
Miles Driven by Terracon Personnel to Manage Sampling Effort >20,137

The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have provided opportunities for Terracon to creatively transform or radically change the sampling program logistics, all within the original fund timeframe and budget. David Dani summarized Terracon’s performance, saying:

“Terracon utilized innovation, teamwork, and a network of national resources to complete the PFAS sampling project. They overcame tremendous unforeseen barriers in helping collect critical data for our state to evaluate PFAS in drinking water and, if needed, respond to impacted communities.”

Terracon completed field sampling in early May, and the results will be delivered on time to CDPHE mid-June. The information will be used to help the state evaluate PFAS-impacts to Colorado communities and, if needed, develop a response plan. As more states recognize PFAS-impacts to water resources as a priority concern, Terracon stands ready to help with reliable and resourceful teams across the country.

Dan Schneider

Daniel F. Schneider, P.E., CHMM, is a senior principal and National Director -- Site Investigation and Remediation at Terracon. He has more than 34 years of experience in environmental, geotechnical, and remedial construction management engineering and leads Terracon’s PFAS Professional Network

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