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Toxic Firefighting Foam Complicates Vermont Effort to Phase Out ‘Forever Chemicals'

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The Vermont Air National Guard took part in this U.S. National Guard firefighting training in Georgia in 2016 - COURTESY OF U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD/ANDREW J. MERLOCK
  • Courtesy Of U.S. Air National Guard/Andrew J. Merlock
  • The Vermont Air National Guard took part in this U.S. National Guard firefighting training in Georgia in 2016

Many Vermont lawmakers say they are ready to ban the "forever chemicals" that have contaminated drinking water in parts of the state.

They have many reasons. In Vermont's best-known case, the chemicals known as PFAS contaminated hundreds of wells in Bennington after two former textile factories in the town baked them onto their products for years.

Elsewhere in Vermont, evidence of contamination has turned up in the leachate of lined landfills because discarded rugs, furniture and clothes break down, and the PFAS-based waterproofing on fibers washes away.

And in South Burlington, the foam that Vermont Air National Guard firefighters sprayed for decades on fuel fires at their base has contaminated area groundwater, sending a steady stream of PFAS pollution into the Winooski River.

PFAS is an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of water-resistant substances first synthesized in the 1950s. The fluorine-containing chemicals have been widely used in products from nonstick cookware to water-repellent clothing to cosmetics. The long chains of carbon molecules that characterize many of the substances make them durable but also resistant to breaking down and therefore persistent in the environment.

They have been linked to a variety of cancers and immune and reproductive disorders and have been discovered in water systems around the nation. This includes 10 small public water systems in Vermont, where five PFAS-class chemicals were detected at levels above the state's standard of 20 parts per trillion.

But when Vermont lawmakers this year sought to get a handle on the contaminated-water problem by banning the sale of products made with PFAS, they found their power to do so limited by an unlikely source — the federal government.

The site of some of the worst PFAS contamination — the property shared by the Air Guard and Burlington International Airport — remains beyond the state's regulatory reach.

The Air Guard follows U.S. Department of Defense guidelines that require firefighting foam to contain PFAS chemicals because they are considered better at quickly smothering fuel fires. Similarly, the Federal Aviation Administration says airports with regular commercial air service must have at least one fire truck filled with PFAS foam ready to respond to emergencies.

The Air Guard provides firefighting for the entire airfield. This includes its own fleet of F-35s, helicopters flown by the Vermont Army National Guard, and commercial jets that serve Burlington International Airport, as well as charter air flights and private aircraft.

When state and federal aviation laws conflict, courts have held that the federal law takes precedence, a legal principle known as federal preemption. So while state lawmakers are considering restrictions on the sale of PFAS-containing consumer products, such as rugs, food containers and ski wax, they have no say over substances used by the airfield's firefighters.

"As a state legislature, our hands are tied as far as telling the airport and the National Guard what to do," said Rep. Dane Whitman (D-Bennington).

Guard officials say the military is trying to phase out the PFAS-based foams by 2024, but no alternative products meet current standards to put out fuel fires in 30 seconds or less. Congress has ordered the FAA to allow the use of fluoride-free foams at commercial airports by this October, assuming they are available. That deadline doesn't mean much for Burlington, however, since the Guard takes orders from the Department of Defense.

Airport director of aviation Gene Richards says he "wholeheartedly" supports "getting rid of this crap," meaning PFAS-foams. He has no say in the matter, however. "We don't even have a seat at the table," Richards said.

While Whitman said he's optimistic that the federal agencies will meet upcoming targets, others are less trusting of federal promises. Veteran clean-water advocate James Ehlers says there is no reason for the military or the FAA to delay switching to fluoride-free foams and for state lawmakers not to require it.

"There are other alternatives," Ehlers told Seven Days, "as other militaries have shown us, as other airports have shown us, as experts have testified to."

The issue is a personal one for Ehlers. As a junior officer on a U.S. Navy-guided missile destroyer for two years, Ehlers was acutely aware of the dangers of a fire at sea like the one in 1967 that killed 134 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal. A power surge caused an F-4 Phantom to fire a rocket into another aircraft, causing a chain reaction of explosions that engulfed the flight deck.

"It was drilled into every single one of us as a damage control officer: It was our responsibility to never, ever, ever — under any circumstances — allow that sort of scenario to proliferate," Ehlers recalled.

So while he understands the military's need to quickly contain fuel fires at sea, Ehlers doesn't think the same protocols should apply to a wide-open airfield, because the potential for water contamination is clear and the health risks of the chemicals have been known since the 1970s.

Ehlers is far from alone in his concern. Air bases around the nation have become hot spots for PFAS pollution. Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health, has called PFAS drinking water contamination "one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades."

The Air Guard says it has already replaced "legacy" firefighting foams with one thought to pose a lesser health risk. That current product, when mixed with water, creates a foam that deprives a fuel fire of oxygen and extinguishes it more quickly than water alone. The product — called Phos-Chek — still contains fluorinated chemicals, however.

"We know that there are fluorine-free alternatives that are used by other countries and companies," explained Col. Adam Rice, vice commander of the 158th Fighter Wing, which flies the F-35s. "But we are limited to a military specification approved by the Federal Aviation Administration."

The base keeps about 1,400 gallons of the foam on hand. The department needs such volume to respond not only to aircraft accidents but also to any fires at tanks containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel, 158th Fighter Wing fire chief Brannon Soter explained.

To minimize exposure to people and the environment, Guard firefighters no longer train with the foam. When it is handled, they wear protective gear and work to prevent and contain any spills, which are rare but must be reported, Soter said.

"That's just kind of the nature of the beast," Soter said. "You can't get away from it all."

Despite their environmental and health risks, these foams are used in military installations around the globe. Ehlers partly blames the influence of chemical manufacturers such as 3M and their lobbyists on the U.S. military.

Instead of switching to fluorine-free alternatives, the Department of Defense bought into big chemical companies' false claims that fluorine-free foams were less effective and their newer PFAS foams were safe, he said.

"This isn't about studying the effectiveness of alternatives; this is about giving the corporations that currently control the supply chain time to profit from the transition," Ehlers said.

He rejects the idea that lawmakers are unable to pass legislation in Vermont that conflicts with federal statutes and guidelines. They do it when sufficiently motivated, he noted, citing a state law that, starting next year, legalizes the sale of cannabis, an illegal substance under federal law.

The military wasn't the only obstacle facing lawmakers who want to limit use of the chemicals. Fuel dealers have also pushed back, arguing that they shouldn't be forced to switch to a less effective product.

"At this point, it would be irresponsible to get rid of it," Tom Keefe, of Global Partners LP, which owns a bulk fuel terminal in Burlington's South End and 34 gas stations, told lawmakers.

Legislators are putting the finishing touches on S.20, which would ban the sale and distribution of a variety of PFAS-containing products to which people have direct exposure, such as food containers and carpets.

An early draft of the bill potentially gave wholesale fuel dealers — with a waiver from the state Department of Environmental Conservation — until 2028 to comply with the ban on foam with PFAS if no suitable alternatives were identified. That timeline wasn't fast enough for some lawmakers, who shortened the waiver period to a single year. The current bill would require they switch no later than 2024. That bill advanced in a unanimous House vote on Tuesday, and it heads back to the Senate next.

Among the affected products, ski wax is of particular concern. University of Vermont head Nordic coach Patrick Weaver told lawmakers that cross-country ski waxes represent a health risk to those handling them. The waxes also rub off on snow and may contribute to some of the contamination plaguing several small water systems near Killington, according to Whitman, the Bennington legislator.

And while the bill may not apply to the airfield, he noted it would ensure PFAS-containing firefighting foam would soon be a thing of the past everywhere else in the state.

This change would build on the work of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to gather up PFAS foams from fire departments and have them destroyed. That effort was paused, however, after neighbors of the disposal site in Cohoes, N.Y., objected, and the incineration of the material was halted, Environmental Conservation Commissioner Peter Walke explained.

Balancing the public safety need to effectively fight fires with removing dangerous toxins from the environment has been a challenge, but it's one Whitman said he thinks the bill meets.

Advocates such as Ehlers say they intend to lobby federal lawmakers, too, to phase out PFAS foams more quickly. On his list is U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who was instrumental in bringing the F-35 to Vermont.

"If he can bring a $1.5 trillion warplane that the Air Force didn't even want here," Ehlers said, "can't he bring a foam here that everyone says they want?"

Correction, May 9, 2021: An earlier version of this story misreported the location of Global Partners' bulk fuel terminal.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Flash Point"