Feds drop the PFAS ball

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Two weeks ago, one of our reporters sat in on a conference call with federal regulators on the emerging contaminant poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS.

The issue with PFAS is nothing new. It’s still called an emerging contaminant, but concerns about PFAS have been around for a while, and you need to look no further than Cape Cod to find two places — Joint Base Cape Cod and Barnstable — where contamination has been known about for several years, and where officials have been working toward cleanup solutions.

So we were intrigued by the conference call to announce what the federal Environmental Protection Agency billed as “a first-ever comprehensive nationwide PFAS action plan.”

After about an hour, we were underwhelmed. It was more like a coming attraction than a comprehensive plan.

We were hoping we might finally get some guidance on a maximum contaminant level (MCL), which is the amount of a contaminant in water that officials believe is safe for drinking. But all EPA official Alexandra Dunn announced is that the EPA expects to set an MCL sometime “by the end of the year.”

Right now, everyone is working with guidelines of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS.

We know it’s complicated, because PFAS is found in everyday products such as carpets, clothing, packaging for food, cookware, and other materials that are resistant to water, grease, or stains. Further complicating matters is that PFAS can leach into groundwater through septic systems.

“Change takes time under our regulations,” Dunn said. (Now would be an appropriate time to roll your eyes.)

As Martha’s Vineyard Airport commissioner Richard Knabel put it later that day during a meeting of the commission, “They’re stalling.”

Give credit to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection — they’re not letting the slow pace of the EPA or the contradictions between the EPA and FAA slow them down.

When Martha’s Vineyard Airport environmental consultant Tetra Tech found levels of PFAS above 70 ppt in a neighborhood off airport property during a voluntary investigation, the DEP was immediately notified, and became involved in making sure the airport and its consultant were doing everything to investigate and then provide an action plan for mitigation.

And this week, the DEP announced a commitment from the Baker-Polito administration to collect and destroy more than 149,000 pounds of “legacy firefighting foam concentrate” from public safety operations across the state.

Legacy foam was manufactured prior to 2003.

None of the foam at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport fits the criteria of what was collected by the state, Ron Myrick of Tetra Tech wrote in an email to The Times.

While it is firefighting foam that is considered the main culprit in the contamination of water on and near Martha’s Vineyard Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration still requires the airport to use those foams in the event of an airplane fire, and airports like MVY have to stock the foam and test it — even as the airport knows it’s responsible for the expensive testing and remediation underway.

Airport officials, on their own, put a plan in place to capture the foam in a holding tank after testing to keep it from exacerbating the pollution problem the airport is now spending so much of its resources to fix.

We asked Dunn a question that’s been on the mind of residents of West Tisbury and Edgartown since they learned about contamination in their neighborhoods: Why is this toxic foam still being used at airports? She said one federal agency, the EPA, isn’t in the business of telling another federal agency, the FAA, what to do.

“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.”

Seriously? What more evidence do you need?

PFAS has been linked to developmental defects in fetuses, as well as effects on the thyroid, the liver, kidneys, hormone levels, and immune systems. The “C” word has also been used, though officials are quick to point out that it takes large amounts of consumption over several decades.

Dunn just ignored the second part of our question. Why isn’t the federal government requiring testing around airports in light of what’s been found at MVY, at Joint Base Cape Cod, and at other airports and firefighter training sites around the country?

At the airport commission’s meeting that same day, Myrick told commissioners that the FAA is working on an alternative to the foam, but it is still a couple of years away.

At that meeting, the same day that federal officials were kicking the can down the road, airport commissioners were committing $250,000 more to testing and installation of carbon-filter water treatment systems in homes affected by the contamination in West Tisbury and Edgartown at the southern border — even as the airport struggles to figure out how to pay for them.

Myrick, in an update to the commissioners, said he doesn’t expect that the federal regulations will trump MassDEP anyway. He said MassDEP is getting closer and closer to issuing standards of its own. By being proactive and receiving counsel from MassDEP, the airport remains ahead of the curve.

Sometimes it’s expensive to do the right thing. But it’s never the wrong thing to do.