Credit: USAF

How spills of toxic firefighting foam containing PFAS escaped into streams, drains near Pittsburgh airport

One of the firefighting foam spills noted in the report was as recent as 2013

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between PublicSource and Environmental Health News on PFAS contamination in Pennsylvania and was funded in part through the Bridge Pittsburgh Media Partnership.


The National Guard's report studying contamination of PFAS chemicals on two Pittsburgh-area military bases lists several times when toxic firefighting foam escaped into drainage outfalls, streams and local storm and sewage drains.

Up until two or three years ago, the Pittsburgh Air National Guard and Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station regularly used firefighting foam that contains several chemicals referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances [PFAS]. These chemicals have been linked to low birthweight, thyroid problems, immune system disruptions and cancer.

The work for the report began more than three years before it was finished in October. It included 61 soil borings up to 15 feet deep, 35 temporary monitoring wells, 36 surface samples and more than 1,100 total data points.

One of the firefighting foam spills noted in the report was as recent as 2013 and the oldest extended as far back as 1992. It's unclear if spills before 1992 were reported or how exhaustive the spill list in the report was.

  • June 6, 2012. Pittsburgh Air National Guard Base. Maintenance personnel were washing off a plane when they accidentally sprayed water onto a fire panel, causing it to short circuit and release firefighting foam. More than 30 minutes later, engineers came to shut off the water valves. The foam and water drained onto the aircraft parking ramp, into the storm drain and over by the dining hall. The base notified the water treatment plants in Moon Township, Robinson and Coraopolis of the spill. Three hours later, foam was seen on the surface of McClarens Run at least a mile away and the base notified the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. Four hours after the release, John Murphy at the DEP told the base he saw "quite a bit of foam" on top of McClarens Run but was not sure what kind of chemicals were in the firefighting foam and "therefore was not sure of what we could or should do for cleanup."Two days later, military personnel sprayed down the firefighting foam still on the base and pumped away 300 gallons from its spill containment area into trucks for disposal. There were several recommendations after the spill including: "Additional training on the proper operation and use of the Spill Containment pits on the aircraft parking ramps...so that personnel will know better how to and when to use them." They also proposed washing all airplanes in a different hangar where there was a larger capacity for containing overflow.
  • Nov. 11, 2013. Pittsburgh Air National Guard Base. At 11:15 p.m., security personnel noticed firefighting foam pouring out of the front doors of an airplane hangar. When personnel entered, they found 2 to 3 feet of firefighting foam had built up. A faulty switch in the hangar led to 900 gallons of overflowing firefighting foam that mixed with 65,000 gallons of water. About half of that was released into a tributary of McClarens Run and the rest was allowed to drain into the Moon Township Municipal Authority sewer system at a rate of 100 gallons per hour. At about 1 a.m., the base tried to call the authority but could not reach anyone, so instead called the Moon Township police.While reviewing the incident, the base discovered that a valve was not completely closed. A mixture of firefighting foam and water had unknowingly been pouring into Moon's sanitary sewer system at a rate of about 80 gallons per hour; it does not state for how long. The base recommended installing additional sensors, so that someone would be notified if a fire panel activated in the future. It took the base three months to receive enough new firefighting foam to refill its system back to capacity.
  • Feb. 22, 1999. Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station. A heat detector malfunctioned, causing the firefighting foam to spill. As the base poured extra foam into the sewer system, military personnel spotted foam bubbling up through a manhole cover in a parking lot several hundred yards away. Some of the foam was captured in the parking lot using sand bags and then disposed of in the sanitary sewer system. According to the report, some of the foam also traveled into a tributary of Meek's Creek, where it could be seen in the water for up to five hours. (The executive director of the Hollow Oak Land Trust, Sean Brady, believes the report misnamed Meek's Run and mistakenly included Meek's because it doesn't get any closer than a half mile to either military base.)
  • May 21, 1995. Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station. A fire alarm was triggered, causing an automatic discharge of 50 gallons of firefighting foam. The foam was washed into the sewer with permission from the Moon Township Municipal Authority. A number of agencies were contacted, including the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
  • June 12, 1992. Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station. Jet fuel spilled near the fueling area, and the toxic firefighting foam was used to contain it. A vacuum truck removed 4,332 gallons of fuel, foam and water from the area.

The contamination report only included information on how much firefighting foam was released during accidental spills, not how much was used during normal operations. The fire chief at the Air National Guard Base said in the report that he believes the foam began being used on the base before 1970.

The contamination report listed a number of instances when firefighting foam was sent down the drain into the Moon water authority's wastewater treatment plant over the years. PFAS contamination in sewage water sometimes ends up in sludge, a byproduct of treated sewage water that is sold to farms as fertilizer. In at least one instance, a dairy farm in Maine had to stop selling its milk because of contamination attributed to the sludge.

John Riley, the general manager of Moon municipal authority, said its sludge is sent to a nearby landfill and not to any farms.

Joseph Vallarian, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, wrote in an email that the agency does not test its sludge for PFAS chemicals. The authority produces about 60 tons of "Alcosoil" sludge per day, according to its website, and has sold it to farms for about 25 years, according to a 2015 report. The authority's closest service area to the contaminated military bases is North Fayette Township, the farthest edge of which is about 1.5 miles away.

The problem with PFAS contamination is that the chemicals don't ever break down on their own, according to Dave Andrews, who studies the chemicals for the Environmental Working Group.

"When released into the environment they are not breaking down," he said. "So it's a matter of how quickly they are spreading out, either sticking to soil or spreading to groundwater."

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource's environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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