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Firefighting foam contamination spurs states to monitor water quality

Only five states are tracking the chemicals used in the foam and spilled from other sources through ongoing water monitoring

By Jennifer McDermott
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The military is checking U.S. bases for potential groundwater contamination from a toxic firefighting foam, but most states so far show little inclination to examine civilian sites for the same threat.

The foam was likely used around the country at certain airports, refineries and other sites where catastrophic petroleum fires were a risk, but an Associated Press survey of emergency management, environmental and health agencies in all 50 states showed most haven’t tracked its use and don’t even know whether it was used, where or when.

Only five states — Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin — are tracking the chemicals used in the foam and spilled from other sources through ongoing water monitoring or by looking for potentially contaminated sites.

A dozen states are beginning or planning to investigate the chemicals — known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs — which have been linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, along with other illnesses. The rest of the states, about two thirds, are waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make a move.

In addition to the Aqueous Film Forming Foam used in disaster preparedness training and in actual fires, PFCs are in many household products and are used to manufacture Teflon.

Knowledge about the chemicals’ effects has been evolving, and the EPA does not regulate them. The agency in 2009 issued guidance on the level at which they are considered harmful to health, but it was only an advisory — not a legally enforceable limit.

The EPA said then that it was assessing the potential risk from short-term exposure through drinking water. It later began studying the health effects from a lifetime of exposure. Those studies remain in progress, and the agency is also considering whether to establish a firm limit on PFCs in water.

The EPA required large public drinking water systems and some smaller ones to check for PFCs between 2013 and 2015.

The full results have not been released because data is still being submitted, but officials in several states told the AP that PFCs were found in their water systems during those checks. Detections were reported by six Massachusetts public water systems, for example.

To date, about 4,800 water systems have submitted their findings to the EPA. About 2 percent so far have reported measurable levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), or both, the agency told the AP on Thursday.

None of the PFOA levels were above the EPA’s guidance, the agency said, but 17 of the PFOS levels were.

But beyond public drinking water, there may be contamination elsewhere that could affect private or other water supplies, including from any use of the firefighting foam. The five states forging ahead with wider tracking for PFCs are going well beyond the EPA’s minimum requirement.

States that are not acting point to the cost of the testing and say nothing in federal law gives them the authority to require water utilities and cities to do it routinely.

“We don’t have the resources to go out beyond what’s required by the EPA at this point,” said Mark Mayer, administrator of the drinking water program for the environmental department in South Dakota. “But we have been paying attention to it because there have been issues in other states.”

A few states could pinpoint situations where the foam had been used. Utah’s fire marshal said the fire service there uses it sparingly and only on large flammable liquid fires, which are rare.

The foam was also used at the state fire school in Delaware, but isn’t anymore, according to the state emergency management agency.

In Issaquah, Washington, a large amount of firefighting foam was sprayed during a tanker fire in 2002 near a well that is now contaminated, though the city said it has not confirmed the source of the pollution. The city is installing a filtration system to remove PFCs from the well water by this summer.

Most states, though, said they have no way of knowing what individual fire departments are using.

Last month, U.S. military officials told the AP they would check 664 sites where fire or crash training was conducted.

The Navy has so far identified one site with contaminated drinking water and another with contaminated groundwater. The Army says there are low levels of PFOA in two drinking water systems.

The Air Force says there are chemicals in drinking water exceeding the EPA’s guidance at three bases, including the former Pease base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Air Force has spent millions so far addressing the contamination there.

PFOA was found recently in wells in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire, near where a company making Teflon has plants. Residents in Vermont raised concerns, and the state responded by testing wells and looking for contamination elsewhere, said Danika Frisbie, an official in the state environmental department.

“We’re responding to some pressure to make sure we’re being thorough and planning ahead, and not waiting five to 10 years to see where else PFOA could be,” she said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before all states are dealing with this issue.”

The 12 states that are beginning or planning to investigate the chemicals are California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Washington and Wyoming.

Details on what the five states actively monitoring for PFCs are doing:

The state is reaching out to agencies and businesses that may have used the foam and so far has found six sites with PFC groundwater contamination, including a fire training center in Fairbanks and at least two nearby private wells.

The state’s 3M Co. invented PFOA. It began to phase it out in 2002 in response to health concerns raised by the EPA, but wells near the manufacturer’s disposal sites were contaminated. The state used money from a settlement agreement and consent order with 3M to sample water statewide for PFCs.

State officials say they’re still monitoring groundwater and evaluating clean-up options at the Duluth Air National Guard Base and in the city of Bemidji after contamination was discovered in 2008 from the foam.

New Jersey
State officials say they’re focused on the Federal Aviation Administration’s technical center near Atlantic City, where PFCs have been found in groundwater and in low levels in municipal wells near the center’s fire training area. New Jersey has investigated industrial sites where the chemicals were used, too, and continues to do so.

The state is sampling water at sites where the chemicals were likely used, including at a fire training academy in Pittsford. The state said last week that the results at the academy showed no contamination.

The Department of Natural Resources has sampled the groundwater at landfills for PFCs for the past eight years and plans to continue.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press