PFAS contamination is likely at Pittsburgh airport. Airports may face legal challenges by doing nothing.
Airport officials say they're doing everything the law requires regarding PFAS. Experts say the law doesn't go far enough.
Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between Environmental Health News and PublicSource on PFAS contamination in Pennsylvania and was funded in part through the Bridge Pittsburgh Media Partnership.
Reports from former firefighters, airport records, expert scientists and a military study indicate that the Pittsburgh International Airport is likely the source of a PFAS chemical plume. Airport officials say they are doing everything the law requires but declined to say if they are taking additional steps experts say are needed to protect the health of nearby residents.
Related: Former firefighters describe how they used foam with PFAS chemicals at Pittsburgh's airport for decades
If the Allegheny County Airport Authority doesn't investigate the possibility of PFAS contamination released through firefighting foam, some lawyers say it could find itself in legal jeopardy. Airports are not required by law to investigate PFAS contamination. Still, there are more than 75 lawsuits across the country against entities that have discharged the foam containing PFAS, and the number is growing.
Some airport industry officials hope that, because the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] requires airports to use firefighting foam that contains PFAS, the airports won't be held liable for letting it contaminate their properties. Not every lawyer thinks this argument will hold up, and a lobbying group for the airport industry is pushing Congress to pass a law that will limit their financial exposure. As the legal questions get sorted out, airports across the country are deciding whether and how to respond to the potential health consequences for residents who live nearby.
Interviews with five former firefighters at the Pittsburgh International Airport and airport records indicate that potentially high volumes of toxic chemicals from the foam may have entered the ground and groundwater at the airport. This contamination could have been flushed into local streams and carried into surrounding neighborhoods, contaminating the drinking water in nearby private water wells. The closest public drinking water source is Moon Township, which uses carbon filtration that removes PFAS and tested below the federal health advisory for PFAS in December.
Since the early 1970s, airport firefighters have been using aqueous film forming foam [AFFF] to put out and prevent oil and gas fires, which are potentially more dangerous at airports. Although the firefighters say they didn't use the foam on many actual fires, the foam was used extensively during equipment testing, fire trainings, fuel spills and accidental discharges.
"Just about every drop of foam that they ever bought went onto the ground, into the soil, into the waterways of the state," said Bob Scharding, who worked as a firefighter at the airport from 1987 to 2007.
The foam contains PFAS, a toxic class of chemicals associated with cancers, kidney disease, low infant birth weights and hormone disruptions. PFAS contamination is typically measured in "parts per trillion" because of how toxic it can be even in miniscule quantities.
Records show the airport purchased 4,950 gallons of AFFF concentrate from 2012 to 2018. PublicSource does not have records for how much the airport purchased before 2012.
The airport currently uses a brand of AFFF called Chemguard, which may be less harmful than the kind previously used and was known to contain toxic PFAS. Airport officials didn't respond to questions about when it switched foams. Although companies like DuPont, a spinoff company called Chemours and 3M have known for decades about the threat of PFAS chemicals, public awareness has grown recently and the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] set its first health advisory for the chemicals in 2009.
Gov. Tom Wolf convened a task force last September to address the problem of PFAS contamination in Pennsylvania. The task force is surveying about 300 water sources in the state to identify how widespread the contamination is.
Two contamination sites have already been identified in Southwestern Pennsylvania, both of which are military bases that lease their land from Pittsburgh's airport. The bases began looking for PFAS contamination in 2015 as part of a national effort to survey the extent of the military's PFAS contamination from firefighting foam and found PFAS in the soil and groundwater exceeding standards at 24 of 31 sites tested. In one spot, the sample was 87 times higher than the EPA's federal threshold for safe drinking water.
The five firefighters, who worked at the airport between 1972 and 2010, said they believe they used a lot more toxic firefighting foam than was used at the military bases. The military bases had only nominal firefighting roles, they said.
"Really we provided fire protection for both [of] the bases," Scharding said. "I never even saw their guys in any kind of gear."
One of the main properties of PFAS chemicals is that they do not break down on their own. Many of the chemicals that were left in the ground decades ago are likely still there. The rest would have been carried away by rain into pockets of underground water and nearby streams. Contaminated drinking water, one of the most common ways humans ingest PFAS, has to either be taken offline or passed through an expensive filter.
At a single firehouse in Rhode Island, environmental officials suspect that a spill of as little as 5 gallons of AFFF up to 17 years ago led to the contamination of well water that served more than 30 homes. The contamination was discovered in 2017 through state testing; the affected residents were given bottled water and are now being connected to the public water supply at a cost of $3 million.
Source: Data obtained through a Right-to-Know request from the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
The former Pittsburgh airport firefighters said the contamination may not be contained to only airport property and its surroundings. They described times when AFFF was used on a large restaurant fire on the North Side, along highways in the South Hills and during fire trainings at a North Park facility run by Allegheny County Emergency Services.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority declined at least nine interview requests by email, phone and in person between November and July and didn't respond to more than 50 written questions that were emailed on June 7. The authority declined a final request to speak about PFAS contamination on Aug. 8.
In December, PublicSource requested records of any tests, environmental assessments or reports about PFAS contamination through Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law. The airport didn't provide any. Emails between officials discussing PFAS, results of AFFF equipment testing and descriptions of procedures were provided.
"We've done everything that we're required to do, and we'll continue to do everything that we're required to do," said Christina Cassotis, the chief executive officer of the airport authority, after being asked by a PublicSource reporter about the airport's PFAS response at a June board meeting. Cassotis said the airport is following all FAA regulations.
The PFAS concern "raises some complex legal questions" because the FAA requires the airport to use AFFF, said Justin Barkowski, vice president of regulatory affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives.
Some airports are not preparing for how to deal with potential contamination as quickly as others, according to Barkowski. He said "most" airports have already begun PFAS testing even though it is not a requirement yet. "We haven't talked with every single airport, but we know that's generally where airports are at," Barkowski said.
Looking for PFAS
Source: National Science Foundation
Airport records, internal emails and government-sponsored surveys sent to and among Allegheny County Airport Authority officials indicate the authority has known about the potential risk for years. Attention to PFAS contamination has ratcheted up in the last year since the governor launched the task force, and there has been media coverage about contamination statewide.
Mark Cuker, a Philadelphia lawyer experienced in PFAS cases, said the authority could face legal liability even if it's doing everything required by law.
"That's absolutely not a defense," Cuker said. "There's plenty of law that says that a party can be found to be negligent even when they follow the letter of the law. The standard is 'reasonable care.' Is it reasonable to do nothing when you know there might be a problem? I don't think so."
"Although each factual situation is different, due to the persistent nature of these chemicals in the environment, sticking one's head in the sand and hoping these PFAS compounds will degrade over time is probably not an effective strategy," Steve Siros, a New York lawyer, recently wrote in a Law360 expert analysis.
Once an airport investigates PFAS contamination, it would likely be required to report it to state environmental agencies under "reportable discharge laws" and would then be required to begin remediation relatively soon, according to Marty Judge, an environmental lawyer in New Jersey. There may be a downside to not waiting to address PFAS contamination, he said: remediation technology could get better and cheaper, and state and federal standards could become more stringent, meaning entities may have to duplicate the work.
In some cases, Judge added, an airport may need to be sued or directed to take action by the government for its insurance to pay out. "A purely voluntary PFAS remediation might not be enough to trigger coverage," he wrote.
The cost of conducting a comprehensive evaluation of an airport's PFAS contamination depends a lot on the airport, according to Zachary Puchacz, an airport planner in Michigan. The state of Pennsylvania is currently spending $250,000 to test more than 300 water sources across the state. But Puchacz said the cost to each airport depends on factors like the "size of airport, volume of material used, number of areas designated for testing, depth of soil/water test borings needed."
Who knew what, when
Although the airport authority says it is following all laws and regulations, there is evidence that its officials know that other airports are doing more to protect the public.
PublicSource learned through a Right-to-Know request that Cassotis received emails from the American Association of Airport Executives in 2018 that included discussion from airports in several other states discussing a switch to a less toxic form of firefighting foam and about how to create better containment areas to prevent AFFF from contaminating the environment.
Keith Leonhardt, the airport operations manager for the Massachusetts Port Authority, asked in one of those emails about "the steps you take to ensure the AFFF is appropriately contained to prevent releases into the environment," he wrote. "We here ... set up a containment area, use a defoaming agent on the dispensed foam and then suck it all up for environmental disposal. It's time consuming and costly."
Source: National Science Foundation
The Allegheny County Airport Authority did not respond to questions about whether Cassotis read these emails. Barkowski said the issue of PFAS contamination has been a topic at meetings of the American Association of Airport Executives for at least the past few years.
In December, the state Department of Transportation sent a questionnaire directly to Cassotis, requesting information about the airport's use of AFFF. The survey included an attachment that described the potential health risks, "particularly if the foam solutions reach drinking water sources, groundwater, or surface waters." PublicSource requested to see the airport's response, and the authority asked for a 30-day extension to reply.
The attached document also states the airport could be legally responsible for dealing with its AFFF pollution. "Currently, federal law does not prohibit the use of legacy AFFF remaining in existing stocks…" the report states. "However, any discharge to a stormwater system, including AFFF... could be considered a pollutant and is regulated by the Clean Water Act."
The attachment sent to Cassotis listed a number of best practices for airports, including:
- "Avoid direct release to the environment to the greatest extent possible."
- "Collect, treat, and properly dispose of runoff/wastewater from training events or live fire events to the greatest extent possible."
- "Make note of sensitive receptors (for example, streams, lakes, homes, areas served by wells) identified in the vicinity of foam use and report to environmental agencies as required."
The National Guard tested 31 sites across the two Pittsburgh-area military bases and found PFAS chemicals contaminating the groundwater or surface water above the federal threshold at 24 sites. The military leases its property from the airport. (Source: Air National Guard)
None of these best practices were implemented by the firefighters who spoke to PublicSource during their times at the airport (1972-2010), they said. The airport did not respond to specific questions about its current or past practices.
Between December 2015 and February 2016, a representative for the Allegheny County Airport Authority responded to a survey for a study by the National Academies of Sciences [NAS]. The study, sponsored by the FAA, inventoried the typical practices at airports for dealing with AFFF.
The report showed that about one in four airports in the same class size as Pittsburgh had conducted an environmental site investigation into potential PFAS contamination. In the past four years, more airports have followed suit. For example, in March 2018, a news report indicated that there may be PFAS contamination at Gerald Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which serves about a third as many passengers as Pittsburgh. A month later, the airport had installed five wells for testing groundwater and began testing soil and surface water.
A few months after that, the airport offered to test the drinking water wells of 44 nearby property owners. The airport is continuing work to protect nearby residents to this day. PublicSource released an article in November 2018, indicating that PFAS contamination was confirmed at military bases immediately adjacent to Pittsburgh's airport.
In May, PublicSource published an article describing the extent of the contamination, including the fact that the military believed the contamination could have extended beyond its borders.
And in June and July, PublicSource posed questions to the airport authority about potential contamination and informed officials that five of its former firefighters indicated there is likely a problem. It's standard procedure to interview firefighters when assessing potential PFAS contamination, a step the military took at the start of its PFAS testing near the airport in 2015.
The airport replied by questioning the quality of PublicSource's reporting. "Is the story going to identify the people making these claims and in what timeframe they are referencing or is this going to be anonymous sources with vague details?" asked Bob Kerlik, the airport authority's director of media relations. (Interviews with Scharding and the four other former firefighters are all on the record, and details of their accounts are further explored in this accompanying story.)
Kerlik wrote in a May email to PublicSource that the authority now uses a safe firefighting foam and has implemented procedures that minimize the chances the foam could contaminate the environment. He did not elaborate on past practices or say when the foam change was made.
Other airports across the country are dealing with PFAS contamination from AFFF more proactively. PFAS was found at five airports in Alaska, including in the drinking water at two of them, and the state is providing drinking water alternatives when it is responsible. California is testing for PFAS at 31 airports, in addition to local water supplies, a step that Pennsylvania has not taken. And the Barnstable Municipal Airport on Cape Cod held public meetings in July about its PFAS contamination.
Ann Richart, who left her position as the director of Martha's Vineyard Airport in May for a new position in Nebraska, gave a public presentation in March about launching an investigation into PFAS contamination there in February 2018. In October 2018, the airport began testing the drinking water of nearby residents. Fourteen homes tested positive for PFAS above the level the EPA considers safe.
Richart said the FAA told her that spending airport revenue on PFAS testing off of airport property was an "appropriate" use of airport revenue. The Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission went out on a limb, Richart said, because typically the FAA provides 90 percent of an airport's improvement funding but it isn't doing that with PFAS remediation.
"Airports are starting to understand they are in a real bind between trying to professionally manage their airport and budget and also doing the right thing," she told PublicSource.
The president of the American Association of Airport Executives told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in July that PFAS legislation being considered could lead to "extensive and costly litigation and cleanup efforts at airports across the country that are required by federal regulation to use firefighting foam that contains PFAS and have no alternatives to the use of such foam." The airport executives have been lobbying for airports to be exempt from Superfund legislation that could make them vulnerable to lawsuits.
Most airport firefighting units, including at Pittsburgh's airport, are now using an AFFF made from a shorter PFAS chemical. Some health experts think these chemicals may be safer because they wash out of the body more quickly than the chemicals in the AFFF before 2002.
But it's not totally clear how safe these new PFAS chemicals are. Carla Ng, a scientist who studies PFAS chemicals at the University of Pittsburgh, said the smaller size of the new PFAS chemicals makes them harder to remove from drinking water.
And, Ng said, even if the shorter chains of PFAS are flushed from the body more quickly, the more we emit into the environment, the higher the concentration that can build up in our bodies. "So we'll still reach some steady state concentration because we're continuously being exposed," she said.
For the time being, the FAA still requires airport firefighters to carry and test AFFF, although new legislation will end that requirement in 2021. The FAA and EPA did not respond to emails for comment.
Congress is currently looking into new rules for PFAS, which could turn PFAS contamination sites into Superfund sites and provide additional funding for cleanup. Some states, like New Jersey, Michigan and Vermont, have already implemented more stringent rules for PFAS contamination that require entities like airports to take more protective action.
Pittsburgh International Airport is undergoing a $1.1 billion upgrade to the terminal to be completed by 2023.
A NAS report states that an airport's long-term finances could be at risk because of PFAS particularly because future construction projects would have to take into account the potential impact of PFAS remediation. The "legacy impacts have the potential to significantly affect capital improvement projects should impacts of PFASs be encountered."
Cuker, the lawyer who works on PFAS cases, said the airport authority is also at risk of being sued by anyone near the airport who drinks contaminated water and develops a disease associated with PFAS contamination.
Private water well owners are particularly vulnerable. "You can't taste this, you can't smell it but it can kill you and certainly make you sick," Cuker said. "People should not be drinking it if it's above [the contamination] level."
"Frankly it's outrageous" that nearby residents haven't had their water wells tested, he added.
The Department of Defense has acknowledged that there are at least five water wells within a mile of the two military bases that could be contaminated. But there have been no plans for tests so far. A state database of well sites indicates other residents and businesses with water wells near the airport could also be at risk. And the risk extends to other communities where firefighters may have used AFFF outside of the airport's property lines.
The state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] is testing more than 300 large water supplies this year but does not currently have a plan to test private wells.
The airport didn't respond to questions about whether they were concerned about the potential health impact to nearby residents.
"Listen, we're doing everything that's required by DEP and the EPA and everything that's required by the FAA," Cassotis, the airport authority CEO, said in June. "We follow all the rules. We follow all of the rules."
This story was fact checked by Matt Maielli.