Airport provides PFAS update

Massachusetts is ‘ahead of the curve’ on standards for this emerging contaminant.

Tetra Tech environmental engineer Ron Myrick gives an update on PFAS mitigation in the area surrounding Martha's Vineyard Airport. - Lucas Thors

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission looked back at the issues they’ve encountered with per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and toward future solutions during a meeting Thursday.

Assistant airport manager Geoff Freeman said he attended a conference in Washington, D.C., in November held by the American Association of Airport Executives regarding emerging environmental threats.

He said more than 100 people were in attendance from airports, consulting and legal firms, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to discuss the PFAS situation and its impact on the aviation industry.

“The big takeaway [from the conference] is that there is nothing to take away just yet,” Freeman said. “The airports are on treadmills running as fast as they can and are going nowhere.”

Freeman explained that the FAA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are both at a standstill and aren’t in a position to make a final determination on anything regarding the chemicals.

But the Department of Defense, according to Freeman, has been “very proactive” in their changes because they don’t have to follow federal guidelines.

Freeman said the Department of Defense has moved to using different types of foam that have less of an environmental impact.

“They are moving to different types of foam, better accountability, and a foam cleanup process for areas where they use those chemicals,” Freeman said.

Representatives from major airports like the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, MI, and Fairbanks International Airport in Fairbanks, AK, spoke at the conference.

Freeman said there is a lot of misinterpretation regarding airports and PFAS in the environment. “It’s not just airports — PFAS is an emerging threat,” Freeman said. “My wife saw on the news that Levi’s is stopping the use of PFAS in their jeans.”

Commissioner Kristin Zern asked what other countries are doing about the PFAS issue, and what kinds of foam are they using instead. “Why can’t we use those foams?” she asked.

“That’s the age-old discussion with the FAA. The European Union, Australia, they have changed to more environmentally safer types of foam, but the FAA is still analyzing those new foam chemicals,” Freeman said. “Some foams might not meet FAA specifications exactly.”

Airport director Cindi Martin noted a recent success of airports across the country in changing legislation that would make airports “purely liable” for any PFAS problems in the community.

“In the National Defense Authorization Act, there was a provision for PFAS. This provision would have required the EPA to classify PFAS as a hazardous material under the Clean Water Act,” Martin said.

By doing this, she said the legislation would have made airports liable for environmental concerns regarding PFAS, even though the airport is still required by grant assurances and the FAA to use PFAS as their sole firefighting agent. 

“Our lobbying agencies fought very hard to have that provision removed from this act, and that has been very successful,” Martin said. She said both the House and Senate versions of that provision have been removed. “That’s good news for us.”

Going forward, Tetra Tech environmental engineer in charge of PFAS remediation for the airport, Ron Myrick, said standards are still being drafted by federal agencies, and they could be completed soon.

“We don’t have a standard quite yet, but I’ve been checking my phone because it could come out at any minute,” Myrick said. “Massachusetts and most of the New England states are ahead of the EPA as far as developing a standard for the Maximum Contaminant Level for drinking water.”

In Massachusetts, Myrick said, he expects to have a 20 parts per trillion (ppt) threshold for six target PFAS compounds. On Friday that was announced.

He noted that the first phase of the initial site investigation has been submitted to the EPA and is available on the airport website, along with the phase two scope of work, which lays out plans going forward pertaining to mitigation based off of what Tetra Tech has learned so far.

Currently, Myrick said 41 point-of-entry systems are using activated charcoal to filter out any PFAS that goes into private wells. 

Myrick and his team are monitoring PFAS levels in those wells, along with monitoring wells dug at various target locations adjacent to the airport.

“We are seeing very good longevity of the activated carbon media we are using to treat private wells,” Myrick said. 

According to Myrick, Tetra Tech is sampling the highest concentration wells every 3 months looking for any drastic changes in PFAS levels.

Myrick said each treatment system uses two activated carbon vessels. This way, if there is any “breakthrough” by PFAS chemicals through the first filter, that information will be collected and the second filter will take care of any residual.

“If there is any breakthrough in the first vessel, our goal is to have the backup vessel installed so no PFAS gets through,” Myrick said. 

But Myrick said the first filters have been doing there job, and no breakthrough of PFAS has been reported so far. Some systems at the lower-end of concentration, he said, may not need to be changed for many years.

For the upcoming year, Myrick said well-sampling will occupy most of Tetra Tech’s time in relation to PFAS.

“We did some investigation, and we learned that we need to go a little further west,” Myrick said.

Another goal of Tetra Tech, according to Myrick, is to better track the “vertical delineation” of PFAS throughout the Martha’s Vineyard sole-source aquifer. He explained that the Island has a sandy aquifer with coarser layers at various depths, so PFAS may be found at different concentrations based on the depth of the well.

Myrick mentioned new treatments are being developed that could be more efficient and cost-effective, but for now, the airport is using the most advanced filter technologies available.

“This is an emerging field, and the market will respond quickly,” Myrick said. “It may be that the next generation of medias work twice as well.”

Commissioner Don Ogilvie asked what the airport will do with the old activated carbon after it has been changed out or the system removed. 

Myrick said there are market avenues available that could allow for disposal of the charcoal, “But I don’t think they have matured enough,” he said.

For now, Myrick said he recommends keeping the old charcoal in bins near the airport wastewater treatment plant, and waiting for the market to respond.

“We want to wait until their is a cost-effective and appropriate means to destroy this material so you aren’t transferring the liability somewhere else,” Myrick said.

Incineration is a possibility, but Myrick said it is expensive, and there aren’t many high-temperature incinerators in the area that could handle the task.

Myrick said Tetra Tech has been corresponding with property owners who have had treatment systems installed or are receiving complimentary bottled water from the airport, and so far there have been positive responses to the public outreach and support.

“Some folks have requested additional sampling, which is good. I think that overall, the message is very positive. People have reached out to us thanking us for getting ahead of this issue,” Myrick said.