Updated Dec. 3
More than 30 people, many of them residents of the neighborhood south of Martha’s Vineyard Airport, squeezed into an airport meeting room Monday to hear details of contamination found in private wells.
A contaminant known as per- or polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), which is found within the foam required for fighting an aircraft fire by the FAA, has been found in the wells, Ron Myrick, an engineer with Tetra Tech, said. The airport is continuing its investigation, but for the time being is also offering bottled water to the homes with elevated concentrations.
More than 100 letters, some of them hand-delivered, were sent to residents of the neighborhoods south of the airport alerting them to contamination, and offering to have their wells tested by the airport, Myrick said. Waldrons Bottom Road, Charles Neck Road, Joe Walker Road, and Coffin Fields Road are among the roads where testing has either been done or requested.
PFAS was found in testing on airport property performed in July by Tetra Tech, an environmental consultant that works for the airport, after Myrick told airport officials about concerns with the contaminant elsewhere. Those wells showed concentrations of 1,000 to 2,000 parts per trillion — much higher than what’s been found in the neighborhoods thus far, he said.
There is no health threat to airport employees or customers because the airport purchases its water from the Oak Bluffs Water District. “We don’t rely on wells,” Ann Richart, airport manager, said.
With the positive tests at Martha’s Vineyard Airport in July, Myrick said he sought permission to test wells on private property. Those results started coming in a couple of weeks ago, he said.
“This thing blew up,” he said. “I’ve been working nonstop for a week.”
While there is no federal or state standard for PFAS, the concentration levels found ranged from 45.5 to 544 parts per trillion (ppt). The 554 ppt detection in one well did necessitate reporting to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP).
As of Monday, 18 addresses on Waldrons Bottom Road had been tested, and about 10 more are scheduled. The area could expand depending on the results, Myrick said.
The airport is paying for testing in locations where PFAS is suspected, but Richart said the airport won’t pay for homeowners who get their wells tested privately.
The results will be shared with homeowners, but individual addresses won’t be made public in order to protect privacy.
An emerging threat
PFAS is known as an emerging contaminant, and officials in Barnstable County have been dealing with similar pollution issues for several years near a firefighting academy that’s believed to be the source of contamination of a public well. On Joint Base Cape Cod, where a military airport also abuts a neighborhood in Sandwich, the emerging contaminant has also been detected.
“It’s not just a problem here,” Myrick said. “It’s a problem anywhere there’s an airport.”
There are no regulations requiring the type of testing being done at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, but Richart said the airport has decided to be proactive.
According to MassDEP, exposure to the chemicals may cause developmental effects in fetuses during pregnancy and in breastfed infants. Effects on the thyroid, the liver, kidneys, hormone levels, and immune systems have also been reported, according to MassDEP. “It is important to note that consuming water with PFAS above the 70 ppt level does not mean that adverse effects will occur,” the MassDEP fact sheet states. “The degree of risk depends on the level of the chemicals and the duration of exposure. The 70 ppt level assumes that individuals drink only contaminated water, which typically overestimates exposure, and are also exposed to sources beyond drinking water, such as food.”
In 2016, the federal EPA set the health advisory of 70 ppt, Myrick said. “If you think about what that is, that’s an eyedropper in a swimming pool,” he said. “The concern for people consuming this is for a lifetime.”
He compared the risk to the warnings that are put out about mercury in shellfish and other seafood warning about consuming too much of it. “[For PFAS] they’re assuming consumption over a long period of time,” he said.
But he acknowledged why the public is so concerned. “This is different. This is water. You have your water supply, you open your faucet, there’s an expectation that you’re drinking safe water.”
One of the problems with the chemical compounds found is that they are also found in common products like carpets, clothing, packaging for food, cookware, and other materials that are resistant to water, grease, or stains, so it can also enter the groundwater through septic systems.
Because of that, the testing protocol is such that you have to wear gloves and shouldn’t have waterproof clothing on during the sampling, because that can skew results, Myrick said.
While the airport is conducting more testing, residents in the area are also being invited to have their wells tested sooner if they’d like by emailing Myrick at email@example.com with their home address and preferred email address.
Robert Rosenbaum, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, said a public meeting will be scheduled when more results are available. He said the hope is to have experts on hand to answer the public’s questions.
“I want to emphasize that the entire commission, the airport management, and staff are all Island residents, and we are deeply committed to ensuring the highest quality of life here on the Island,” Rosenbaum said.
No alternative, yet
Firefighting foam is used for testing once a year at the airport, according to airport assistant manager Geoffrey Freeman. It’s also on hand for emergencies involving aircraft fires.
Since 2002 until fairly recently, firefighting foam was deployed two times per year for testing without regard to the location, Freeman said in answering a question from Waldrons Bottom Road resident Brock Callen.
Recently, the testing was moved to an area where the foam drains into a holding tank, and is being stored for disposal, Freeman said.
That hasn’t always been the case, because the concern about chemicals in the foam is fairly recent, Myrick said.
“FAA is very well aware of this issue. They’re looking at alternate foams we can use,” Richart said. “We’re also required by FAA to test not only the foam, but the application, which is the trucks, to make sure all of that works, so if there is an aircraft fire, FAA and we know it works.”
There are solutions for the contamination. Charcoal filters remove PFAS from water, and there’s a possibility of working to stop the flow of the contamination off airport property, Myrick said. But more testing needs to be done prior to coming up with a long-term solution.
This isn’t the first time that the airport has had contamination flow off its property and affect water supplies of private homeowners. Solvents from a former dry cleaning operation once fouled the water, as well, Myrick said.
Domingo Pagan, who lives on Waldrons Bottom Road, sat through the meeting, asked questions, and said afterward he’s hopeful that the airport will test his well and, if the compound is found, will install a filter for him. When Pagan raised questions about toxicity, airport officials and Myrick pointed him to a fact sheet from MassDEP, and said a future forum would also address concerns.
In answer to another question, Myrick pointed out that there is no concern about bathing or handwashing with the water. “Showering and passive contact aren’t a concern. It’s consumption, and really it’s consumption over a long period of time,” he said.
Myrick conceded it’s reasonable to conclude that the contaminant could have been detected in previous years, if anyone knew that it was a problem.
Freeman reminded the audience that until the FAA comes up with an alternative, which is being worked on, the airport has to continue using the foam for emergencies and testing for those emergencies.
“It’s interesting how you’re balancing the risk, because it’s the rare fire versus chronic potential poisoning of the well,” Pagan said.