State working to contain Farmington River pollution from firefighting foam spill

State working to contain Farmington River pollution from firefighting foam spill

Source: https://www.courant.com, June 12, 2019
By: Gregory B. Hladky

State environmental officials are continuing efforts to contain potentially hazardous chemical pollution in the Farmington River resulting from the accidental spill of fire-fighting foam at a Bradley International Airport hangar.

Close to 50,000 of gallons of water and foam containing PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” were released during the incident at the Signature Flight private aircraft hangar Saturday, according to state estimates.

An unknown amount of that contaminated water and foam made its way through the sewer system to the Metropolitan District’s Windsor treatment plant and from there into the Farmington River near Poquonnock Avenue, officials said.

Health and environmental authorities have issued a warning not to consume fish caught from the river or to touch areas of foam that may be in the water or along the banks. “There is no observed mortality to aquatic life in the river,” according to an initial Department of Energy and Environmental Protection report.

Booms were placed around the outfall from the sewage treatment plant, which officials say is not designed to filter out chemical firefighting foams, and as much of the foam as possible is being collected by contract workers for disposal.

Jeff Chandler, supervisor of the DEEP’s emergency response unit, said Tuesday the estimates he’s received indicate that about 19,000 gallons of foam and contaminated water have been recovered from the hanger site, a sewer manhole, at the sewage plant, and from the surface of the Farmington River.

“We don’t think this will impact water systems,” DEEP spokesman Lee Sawyer said Tuesday. But he added that Connecticut officials are moving to seek stricter controls over PFAS. “This is a serious human health and environmental concern,” Sawyer said.

Ray Frigon, assistant director of DEEP’s remediation unit, called PFAS “very much an emerging contamination issue.”

“The chemical in this firefighting foam… harms people and does not break down,” said Bill Dornbos, executive director of the Farmington River Watershed Association. “We really can’t have this again… People and wildlife depend on a clean, healthy Farmington River.”

PFAS, which are perfluorinated compounds, has the potential to cause serious health problems in humans, animals and aquatic life, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Studies have found the long-lived chemical compounds can impact reproductive functions, livers and kidneys in laboratory animals.

Foam containing PFAS is considered a highly effective fire suppressant, but there is growing concern about the potential health and environmental risks associated with PFAS contamination.

Reports of PFAS groundwater pollution around military bases in Arizona, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have resulted in national headlines. CNN cited a U.S. Defense Department study that identified at least 36 military installations where drinking water levels of these compounds exceeded EPA health advisory levels.

Experts say the PFAS pollution around those bases is often the result of the use of firefighting foams like the one involved in the Bradley Airport incident.

“It’s really hard to get out of the environment once it gets in,” Dornbos said of the PFAS chemicals.

A spokesperson for the Connecticut Airport Authority, which operates Bradley Airport, said in an email that there have been no similar PFAS foam spills at the facility since the CAA took over in 2013.

“The CAA has taken steps to insure that any PFAS discharge is strictly mitigated and we are fully investigating to ensure that our tenants are putting the strongest mitigation measures in place as well,” spokeswoman Alisa Sisic said.

Production of PFAS chemicals has been halted in the U.S., but they are still produced in other nations and can be imported into this country, according to the EPA. These chemical compounds can be found in all kinds of products, from non-stick pans to food packaging.

An initial state report on the Bradley incident said a “faulty alarm manual pull station” in the Signature Flight hangar triggered the release of a mixture of 3 percent PFAS and water that turned into firefighting foam sprayed into the hangar. The hanger is located in East Granby.

James Edwards, general manager of Signature Flight’s Bradley Airport operation, issued a statement saying the incident occurred at about 2 p.m. Saturday. He said his staff “immediately began working” to minimize the environmental impact of the spill and swiftly notified state and local officials of the incident.

Edwards declined to comment on whether his company had experienced any similar firefighting foam accidents in the past, and referred all other requests for comment to DEEP officials. He said his company is cooperating fully with all state and local agencies.

The DEEP incident report said a vacuum skimming operation was used to try and collect as much of the PFAS foam as possible on the floor of the hangar.

According to the DEEP report, the escaping foam and water flowed into the sewer system later Saturday evening and down to the sewage plant at 1222 Poquonnock Ave.

The MDC plant is a secondary facility that isn’t equipped to filter out firefighting foam containing PFAS, according to what state officials told Dornbos. Also, the plant’s aeration system actually created more foam that was then also released through the outflow into the Farmington, Dornbos said.

“Due to the inherent aeration of a Water Pollution Control Authority plant, finished foam was observed in the plant, as well as in the Farmington River,” the report stated.

Sawyer said foam is still being collected at the MDC plant outfall, but that plant officials now believe that foam is a normal product of sewage treatment and that the PFAS foam has now “worked its way out of the system.”

State health and environmental officials will be collecting and testing samples of fish and other aquatic life in the Farmington over the next few weeks.

MDC spokeswoman Kerry Martin said Tuesday that officials at the quasi-public sewer and water agency aren’t aware of any similar PFAS foam spills at Bradley Airport that have reached the Windsor plant.

Dornbos said his organization’s members “have many questions and concerns” about the PFAS incident, “including how this harmful pollutant could end up in the Farmington River so easily.”

“Are other fire suppression systems at Bradley Airport at risk for malfunctioning like this?” Dornbos asked in an email. “What steps are being taken to prevent this from happening again?”

“We have been fighting for decades to clean up and restore the Farmington River and recently won federal Wild and Scenic protected status for this lower stretch,” Dornbos said. “Our river is a precious, life sustaining resource. “This foam spill, and the risk of more spills, puts that in great peril.”

Sawyer said DEEP has been working in the past couple of years “to ramp up testing of water supplies” in Connecticut for possible PFAS contamination from past releases.

A bill was submitted to the 2019 General Assembly to ban the use of PFAS firefighting foam at Connecticut fire training facilities. The legislation won unanimous approval from the legislature’s Public Health Committee but never made it to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.

Sawyer said DEEP officials expect there will be additional legislation submitted next year and that his agency would support “any commonsense measures” to reduce the potential impact of PFAS chemicals on this state’s environment and water supplies.

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