Mass. county suspends water use at fire training academy

Permanently discontinuing water use would effectively shut down the facility, a known point source for PFOS and PFAS contamination stemming from the use of firefighting foams


Bronwen Howells Walsh
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

The Barnstable County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to cease water use at the county Fire and Rescue Training Academy, effective June 21.

Located in Barnstable at 155 South Flint Rock Rd., between Route 6 and Barnstable Municipal Airport, the regional academy hosts firefighting training programs that reach upwards of 900 Cape firefighters annually.

Permanently discontinuing water use would effectively shut down the facility, a known point source for PFOS and PFAS contamination stemming from the use of firefighting foams in academy training exercises before such foams were banned in 2009. Both the town and county have filed separate lawsuits against the manufacturers of the foams.

Although he voted in support, Commissioner Ron Beaty called the decision premature. He said "no longer using water at the fire training academy is a partial shutdown when they still haven't found another permanent home" for the fire training academy.

"We're just suspending use of water at the site," replied Jack Yunits, Barnstable County administrator. "Under our charter, our principle reason to be is to make sure Barnstable County's water is clean. I hope the people of Hyannis will see the good intention on the county's part...and start to work together on this."

The good news, Yunits said, is that carbon filters currently in place at the Mary Dunn wells and paid for by the county have resulted in no detectable PFOS or PFAS. However, he added, there's still a plume from beyond the western edge of Flint Rock Pond.

"We've got to start to focus on the western edge of this pond," he said. "We want to see true data. We've got to know where it's coming from." The airport? The wastewater treatment plant? he asked rhetorically. "The country is trying to do the right thing. We don't intend to be back in the long run, but we still can work together."

At the same time, he said, "I am not going to let down our firefighters. Blue and red are as important to us as anything we do in government, and they have to be trained appropriately, or there are going to be deaths."

The commissioners then approved a $500,000 FY 2019 allocation toward groundwater cleanup efforts at the site, bringing the county's total expenditure there this year to approximately $1.3 million.

"I want to know how much this is going to cost us in total," Beaty said. "This is a bottomless pit. Can we financially sustain this?"

According to Yunits, that is something Congress is going to have to address, because nobody knows the answer to that question. The chemical manufacturers like Monsanto should be held accountable "because they didn't tell us for 30 years" that the chemicals are harmful.

"Because we (the county) allowed it, we are considered a responsible party, and we are not entitled to Superfund money," Yunits told the commissioners. "Try to figure that one out. In the meantime, we are spending money."

The county's site cleanup expenses will climb even higher if, like New York and New Jersey, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection makes municipal drinking water standards more stringent, dropping the combined level of allowable PFOA and PFOS chemicals from 70 to 20 parts per trillion, Yunits said.

"We're doing everything we possibly can to assure the public that the water is safe," said Ron Bergstrom, commission chairman.

Yunits said Joint Base Cape Cod is constantly monitoring the groundwater on its base, "and if the academy is potentially relocated there, I can't imagine this going on much longer. This kind of number is just not sustainable.

"Ultimately the base would be a partner if we can pull off creating a multi-jurisdictional training facility, which is what we really should be doing these days, but the base is not involved in the cleanup effort," Yunits said.

The Town of Barnstable is the responsible party for the Hyannis Water District, Yunits added, "and Barnstable's got other problems with other wells. They're caught between a rock and a hard place as well, which is why we shouldn't be pointing fingers but working together."

In 2016, the town filed suit against Barnstable County, alleging that the county's fire training academy caused the town's nearby Mary Dunn wells to be contaminated. Part of the county's $3 million settlement with the town in 2017 mandates cleanup of the western edge of Flint Rock Pond.

Yunits said he would be attending a 5 p.m. information session scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday) at Barnstable Town Hall. A citizens petition resulted in the fire training academy's being designated as a public involvement site, and Barnstable County is soliciting public comment on future cleanup plans.

In other action, the commissioners approved a $1.3 million loan to purchase a new county dredge, which they said they hoped would be up and running by September.

Yunits said he is completely revamping the county dredge department because Supt. Wayne Jaedtke is retiring.

"We're bringing in a consultant that's going to help us choose the next superintendent," Yunits said. "This (maintenance dredging) is one of the most important things we do for the citizens on the Cape."

The department also is retrofitting its sand shifter and upgrading its cod fish dredge, which has been in the water for 22 years, Yunits said.

For maintenance dredging in Falmouth, Dennis and Provincetown, the codfish is perfect, Yuntis said. But in Chatham and Pompponesset, "the current is too much for our dredges, and the National Seashore won't allow us to deposit on their beaches. It's an emergency. Something has to be done."

Bergstrom said 75 percent of the county commission's concerns involve these two water-related issues.

"I'm sure we'll come up with a solution," Bergstrom said. "I'm making a commitment that, a year from now, May 1, 2020, we'll be back in this room and have this settled."

The ideal solution would be to purchase a huppet dredge, but those cost $10 million, he added.

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©2019 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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