Fire foam used for training in Conn. could pose serious health, environmental risks
State Fire Administrator Jeff Morrissette said there is “no way of knowing” how much of the chemical foam is being used
Gregory B. Hladky
The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut experts are increasingly worried about potential health and environmental risks of firefighting foam containing hazardous PFAS chemicals now being used and stored at more than 300 fire departments across the state.
Jeff Morrissette, the state fire administrator, said there is currently “no way of knowing” how much of the controversial chemical foam is being used to fight fires and for training firefighters in Connecticut.
But environmental and health experts are certain that it’s being used frequently, in all parts of the state, and could pose a serious risk to drinking water and the environment.
PFAS compounds like those found in the firefighting foam that leaked into the Farmington River recently have been linked to reproductive problems, kidney cancer and other illnesses. PFAS have been nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and are very difficult to remove.
Ground and water pollution from PFAS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, has led to controversy, lawsuits and legislation in states all over the U.S., including Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania.
Connecticut health officials, responding to federal requirements, have been testing major public water systems for PFAS levels since 2013. Thus far, none of those drinking water systems have shown levels above federal safety standards.
The state Department of Public Health has adopted a safety level standard for PFAS chemicals in drinking water of 70 parts-per-trillion. Vermont, which has been dealing with major PFAS contamination issues, just adopted toughest-in-the-nation legislation setting a drinking water safety standard of 20 parts-per-trillion.
DPH testing done thus far on drinking water supplies has resulted in only one finding of significant PFAS contamination, according to agency officials. In 2018, a private well in Greenwich near Westchester County Airport was found to have elevated levels of the chemicals, and a “do not drink” order for the well was issued.
Lee Sawyer, spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said his agency wants to see additional testing done around fire training centers and other locations where large amounts of PFAS foam may have been used.
PFAS pollution concerns go beyond the foam’s use in fighting chemical and flammable fuel fires, Sawyer said. Old landfills and former industrial sites are also potential danger areas for PFAS leakage into groundwater supplies.
These chemicals are also found in food packaging and nonstick cookware. New Hampshire and New York have filed lawsuits against a laundry list of companies involved in the production or distribution of PFAS-related products.
But the immediate worry for Connecticut officials is the anti-fire foam used to suppress chemical and flammable liquid fires and potential fires.
The June 8 malfunction in a fire suppression system at Signature Flight’s private hangar at Bradley Airport released an estimated 50,000 gallons of a mixture of PFAS foam and water. An unknown amount of the potentially hazardous mixture flowed into the sewer system, down to a secondary treatment plant off Poquonnock Avenue in Windsor, and then through the plant’s outflow into the Farmington River.
About 19,000 gallons of the mixture was recovered at the hangar, the sewer system, the Metropolitan District treatment plant and from the surface of the river. State officials say they are planning to test the river water, sediments and aquatic life for levels of PFAS, and have not ruled out possible dredging. DEEP experts say they don’t believe the spill resulted in contamination of any area drinking water supplies.
Environmentalists and a federal National Park Service official say they were stunned such a spill could have so easily and quickly reached the Farmington, which has only recently been designated a “wild and scenic river.”
Morrissette said his agency, just days before the Bradley Airport malfunction, was preparing to send out new guidelines for restricting the use of PFAS foam by Connecticut fire departments and training centers. The draft of the new guidelines includes a statement that state officials “strongly recommend” that fire departments not use PFAS foam for training purposes, according to Morrissette.
Connecticut has nine regional fire training schools, including the State Fire Academy close to Bradley Airport.
The state also has eight special emergency trailers stocked with PFAS foam at locations around the state. Those trailers each contain enough PFAS chemicals to produce more than 16,600 gallons of a foam and water mixture.
The State Fire Administrator’s Office is also planning to conduct a statewide survey of fire departments and fire training facilities to find out how much of the firefighting chemical compound is in Connecticut.
Morrissette said the state stationed those emergency fire trailers around the state following 9/11. They are located in Danbury, Fairfield, Hartford, New Haven, Norwich, Waterbury, Winsted and Willington.
“We need to move in a different direction,” Morrissette said of the use of PFAS firefighting foam. He said his office has been meeting with firefighting foam manufacturers for months to discuss alternatives to PFAS.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, proposed legislation this year to halt the use of PFAS foam for fire training in Connecticut. The bill had strong support from a firefighters’ association as well as environmentalists and passed the legislature’s public health committee unanimously, but never made it to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.
Steinberg said the problem may have been the legislation included a $66,000 cost estimate because it required public health officials to evaluate alternatives to PFAS firefighting foam.
Although it was “a relatively modest amount,” according to Steinberg, there was no provision for that funding in the budget that passed the General Assembly after months of negotiations and wrangling. Steinberg said he will try again in 2020, and state officials have said they will support reasonable proposals to control PFAS pollution.
“It’s too bad we didn’t get this passed,” Steinberg said. “We would have been on our way to solving this.”
Gregory B. Hladky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)