Airport cleanup continues, and is costly

Commissioners look to speed up process of replacing airport director.

Martha's Vineyard Airport is getting a $1.2 million federal grant to help with the loss of revenue from a drop in traffic. - George Brennan

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport is bleeding money as the investigation and remediation of contamination continues.

On Thursday, the airport commission authorized a $130,000 contract with Tetra Tech, the environmental firm conducting the investigation and remediation, and were told that $120,000 more will be spent on testing wells and installing carbon-based water filtration systems at homes, at $4,000 per unit, where the pollution has been found at levels above state guidelines.

Airport director Ann Richart told commissioners that the airport does have insurance that covers pollution, and is exploring a claim through its carrier. Airport officials have also discussed the possibility of recouping some of the funds spent on the voluntary investigation through the Federal Aviation Administration, which to this day requires the foam suspected in the toxic plume.

The contaminant in question is per- or polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS). The airport now collects the foam in a holding tank after required testing. Firefighting foam is considered the best way to extinguish fires involving jet fuel.

A total of 13 wells out of nearly 100 tested have been at or above 70 parts per trillion, which is the state guideline for PFAS. The airport is also providing bottled water to about 27 homes that have tested above 20 ppt.

Ron Myrick, an engineer with Tetra Tech, told the commission the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection approved the airport’s remediation plan on Feb. 7 with conditions, among them that the airport’s treatment system monitoring be reviewed, continued monitoring of wells that tested under 20 ppt be done, and that an evaluation be done on the ability to eliminate the source of the contamination.

Myrick said Tetra Tech is working with Culligan to install treatment systems in affected homes. The one treatment system in place is working effectively to eliminate PFAS from the water to undetectable levels, he said.

Earlier in the day, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced its new action plan on PFAS. The EPA is moving toward a maximum contaminant level, also known as an MCL, but has not yet set one. In a conference call with reporters and other stakeholders, EPA official Alexandra Dunn said she expects an MCL to be set by the end of the year.

Myrick told the commissioners that the EPA’s renewed attention on PFAS isn’t really driving what’s happening at the airport. MassDEP is.

“They’re stalling,” commissioner Richard Knabel said of the EPA.

Asked by commissioner Rich Michelson if the FAA is still requiring the airport to use the foam, Richart said, “Absolutely.”

Myrick said an alternative is being sought, but is years away.

During Thursday’s conference call with the EPA, The Times asked why the FAA hasn’t been directed to stop requiring the use of foams containing PFAS at airports across the country.

“The plan commits EPA to working closely with our other federal partners. So we are already having conversations with the Department of Defense, which has many airfields and other fire training facilities where these [firefighting foams] have left residual contamination,” Dunn said. “Airports, commercial airports, are a source. We know, generally, where to look for sources of PFAS. EPA New England has a PFAS screening tool that can help communities with PFOA and PFOS, and so certainly we will be working with our federal partners. The plan does not suggest, at this time, that we’ll be directing another federal agency to take any immediate steps unless they present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health, in which case we do have our authority under the Safe Water Drinking Act to require cleanup activities or remediation.”

Later this year, Myrick expects that the state guideline for PFAS will be lowered from 70 ppt, which could affect the number of wells requiring mitigation near the airport. The delay in setting a standard is due to PFAS being found in other products, like nonstick pans and waterproof clothing.

Meanwhile, Myrick said, he expects as many as 40 more wells will be tested for the first time as seasonal residents return to the area south of Martha’s Vineyard Airport where the testing has been concentrated. The highest levels of PFAS have been found in private wells near Edgartown–West Tisbury Road, he said during his presentation.

“We might not need to go much beyond this area, because we’re starting to get some consistency in non-detects,” Myrick said.

Earlier in the meeting, chairman Robert Rosenbaum gave a bleak financial outlook, similar to the one he gave to Dukes County Commissioners recently. The airport will need either the state legislature to come through in approving a $1.27 million bond, or the county will have to provide a short-term loan of $300,000 to $350,000 for the airport to get to its busy season, when cash flow will improve, Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum pointed out that PFAS is costing Barnstable $16 million because of contamination from a firefighting training area that contaminated a public drinking well.

“That’s a lot of money,” he said.

After all the financial news, commissioner Clarence “Trip” Barnes had a question: “When do we run out of cash? How much we got in the till?”

Rosenbaum said April, May, and June will be tough.

“Yippee,” Barnes said.


Search is on

The commissioners understand they need to find a replacement for Richart, who last month announced that she will not renew her contract as airport director when it expires in early May. But exactly how to perform that search made for a lengthy discussion.

An attempt by Barnes to have the commissioners handle the search themselves by placing advertisements in trade publications got no support from the other six commissioners.

Instead, they agreed to have Rosenbaum check procurement rules to determine if the commission can hire a consultant without going out to bid or getting three estimates. Rosenbaum got estimates from two firms — ADK and ACS — that conduct aviation-related searches, and the majority of the commission appeared to be leaning heavily toward a partial search by ADK for $18,000. ADK also provided an estimate of $32,210 for a complete search, while ACS set its price at $39,600.

“It’s too big a job to turn over to us,” Don Ogilvie, vice chairman of the commision, said. “We need professional help.”

There was some tension between Ogilvie and Michelson. Michelson said he’s frustrated that Ogilvie would not call a meeting of the personnel subcommittee to work out some of the search details ahead of Thursday’s meeting. Michelson called the search “too important” to delay. “I think we just wasted a lot of time doing this,” he said. “It bothers me we couldn’t come with more ideas.”

The need for speed was evident. “I don’t want to let another month go by,” commissioner Peter Wharton said. “We need to move forward, now.”

The board scheduled a meeting for Thursday, Feb. 21, at 4 pm to set up a search committee, which will include two commissioners and three members of the public.

Meanwhile, the commission will begin advertising on-Island for a new financial controller.


Lots to do

When the airport hasn’t been making news for contamination, it’s been in the headlines for its expansion plans. Commissioners have put together a fact sheet aimed at answering the public’s questions about the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) process.

Airport officials have said they needed to include all of the projects included in the airport’s master plan, even if some of those aren’t on the airport’s radar screen.

Jed Merrow, a consultant with McFarland Johnson, told the commissioners that the public comment period has closed on the initial MEPA process, with 34 individuals and nine organizations and agencies making comments.

Those comments will be reviewed and incorporated into the plans, Merrow said. Many of the comments centered on the need to expand the terminal, and parking, traffic, water quality, climate change, and protecting habitat, he said.

Commissioner Kristin Zern, who chairs the airport’s outreach committee, suggested responding to each of the commenters.

Richart said the number of parking spaces included in the MEPA documents is exaggerated. The airport will not be doubling the amount of parking under any scenario, she told commissioners. “This is a process,” she said.

More immediately, the commission is working with the state to get two lots in the business park released. One is already developed, and the other is one that the airport would like to lease.

The lots were altered without proper permits, Merrow said.

The consultant is in negotiation with the state’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, which is concerned that the land was habitat for moths.

In another hit to the airport checkbook, Natural Heritage appears willing to take $80,000 as a one-time mitigation fee, Merrow told the commission.

The details of that agreement are still being worked out, Richart said.

Commissioners also renewed several leases for lots in the business park without much fanfare, but when it came time to provide space inside the terminal for TSA, that generated discussion. TSA is going to use a concession area that’s been vacant for several years for $14,586 per year, moving out of a trailer that isn’t an adequate space for them, Richart said.

When several commissioners questioned giving up valuable retail space in the terminal, Richart said, “It’s good real estate that’s been empty for years.”

In a 6-1 vote, with Barnes opposed, the commission approved the move by TSA.