Massachusetts enacted one of the most stringent PFAS regulations in the United States as COVID-19 concerns crippled the nation. New state regulations for drinking water set the combined limit for six PFAS chemicals at 20 parts per trillion (ppt), compared to the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.
Bay State legislators cited the serious health impacts of PFAS exposure as the reason for lower limits. Scientific studies link PFAS exposure to reduced fertility and low birth rates, liver and kidney damage, thyroid disease, suppressed immune systems, and other troubling health issues.
Nantucket Memorial Airport, situated on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, decided to take on the new legislation immediately; spending an estimated $2 million on remediation measures and developing plans to invest $6 million more in longer-term measures over the next six years.
Airport officials felt they needed to PFAS concerns even if the pandemic complicated the work. “A lot of credit goes to our airport commission for realizing very quickly that we needed a long-term solution,” says ACK Assistant Manager Noah Karberg.
Nantucket is a small island off the coast accessible by air service, boat or ferry. The possibility of soil and water contamination—from firefighting foam—is a critical concern for the 10,000 residents with well water.
“This is a small island, and the affected homeowners are our neighbors and our friends,” says Karberg. “Mitigating PFAS is very personal to us.”
The airport began soil and well testing and provided bottled water to affected residents. Later, it installed water filtration systems at affected homes and hired specialists to develop longer-term solutions.
Rounding out its initial efforts, the airport invested in the ECOLOGIC foam testing cart from E-ONE to test firefighting foam without environmental impacts. The airport now plans to extend a water main to bring clean municipal water to affected residences.
Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) teams use aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), an FAA-mandated firefighting material that contains PFAS:
- During emergencies to suppress and extinguish fires
- For equipment calibration to ensure trucks discharge foam in correct concentrations
- During live fire training exercises
Though many states ban AFFF discharge in training, ARFF teams still use it to fight fires and to test equipment. Nantucket eliminated AFFF discharges during testing with its ECOLOGIC cart.
The FAA has approved using this mobile cart, which is compact and easy to transport, to test the accuracy of foam systems without the environmental impacts of using foam to perform an output-based test. ARFF teams can use the cart to test multiple trucks and to retrofit vehicles already in their fleets.
The NFPA 412-approved testing cart adapts to most ARFF vehicles. It uses a self-contained test system that is easily moved by hand and stored separately from the truck. The cart tests the foam proportioning percentage using water supplied from the truck’s water tank drain, while isolating the foam tank, and directing it through an accurate electromagnetic flow meter that measures the amount of water passing through the vehicle’s calibrated foam metering system.
Though the Nantucket airport uses E-One’s cart, the FAA also has approved the NoFoam System and the Oshkosh ECO EFP (Electronic Foam Proportioning System) for similar use.
To get a handle on the problem, the airport hired an environmental services firm to collect over 300 water samples from local water wells and monitoring wells.
Test results showed some wells south of the airport had PFAS levels over Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection limits, while sites west of the airport revealed less PFAS contamination.
Results ranged from no detectable PFAS to over 1,000 parts per trillion. The airport acted immediately, providing bottled water to 65 homes with levels over 20 parts per trillion in their drinking water. Later, plumbers installed point-of-entry treatment (POET) systems at 19 affected homes. These prefilter systems attach to a home’s water service to treat its entire water system.
Long term, the airport plans to extend an existing water main to bring city water to affected homes and to remediate impacted soil.
“Most airports provide bottled water and some initiate POET installations, but I know of very few that have started water main construction,” Karberg remarks. “The water main will cost $3 to $4 million. But it is more cost-effective. It’s also easier than winterizing and maintaining POET systems and conducting repeat testing.”
The airport also must address PFAS-contaminated soil. But exporting soil to a landfill that accepts contaminated material isn’t a probable solution. “We’d be talking about potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to move contaminated soil off the island by ferry,” Karberg explains. “We will need to do an onsite engineering treatment.”
The Need for Transparency
The complicated situation scared residents who feared the contaminated drinking water would impair their health. Transparency was a must, Karberg says.
The airport hosted a series of public meetings to educate and inform and launched a website (www.ack-pfas.com) to communicate openly. The site announced public meetings and their outcomes, shared testing results and other studies, educated residents about PFAS, and provided updates about the water main extension.
“Going out to educate, inform, and show our progress has gone a long way in easing public fears,” Karberg reports. “It shows our commitment to doing the right thing.”