National PFAS settlement a boost for airport litigation

Public water systems are taking priority in a recent national settlement; Martha’s Vineyard Airport expects transition to new firefighting foam within the next 12 months. 

The airport may be getting settlement money for PFAS damages. —MV Times

Martha’s Vineyard Airport officials are expecting to recoup funds spent mitigating per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals through a multidistrict national lawsuit.

Details over how much and when funding could be reimbursed still remain unclear, but a major manufacturer has agreed to settle, which is raising expectations that other settlements are close.

An attorney representing the airport in the multidistrict litigation, James Ferraro Jr., said the aim is to get back all the money that’s been spent on PFAS cleanup, if not more. 

“Whether that’s going to happen — it may, it may not — but we’re looking to get back dollar for dollar what’s been spent,” Ferraro said. 

The airport entered into a multidistrict litigation in 2020 against large manufacturers of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a fluorinated substance that has been used at airports for decades. The substance was the only foam that met Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards. AFFF contains PFAS. 

In 2018, the wells in neighborhoods south of the airport tested positive for PFAS contaminants, and AFFF was suspected to have been the source. The airport then engaged in PFAS mitigation efforts, including the use of PlumeStop, a substance inserted into the PFAS-contaminated groundwater to act as a purifier upon contact. That was implemented last December with continued monitoring.

During the Airport Commission’s meeting on Thursday afternoon, Ferraro said, “A lot has happened in the past week.” 

Ferraro said that chemical company DuPont agreed to settle with public water systems throughout the country. 3M is also expected to settle at a larger number, although “the details are not ironed out yet.” Ferraro said it was positive that the defendants have an “appetite” to settle, considering there are other lawsuits they are “fighting tooth and nail” without a settlement in sight. 

But he said it could be some time before funding filters down to airports.

As the settlements currently stand, Ferrero said they should apply to “any airport claims,” which currently number around 40. “All of their claims look similar to yours,” Ferraro said to the commission, adding that Martha’s Vineyard Airport’s case was made more complicated by private residential wells being impacted. 

Ferraro said the judge prioritized public water systems because of a need to clean up drinking water, although how much money municipalities will receive remains to be seen. Other claims, like soil contamination and the “thousands of personal injury claims,” have been “placed on the back burner,” he said. That means West Tisbury, which joined a multidistrict litigation over PFAS-contaminated wells this year, and is also represented by the Ferraro Law Firm, will need to wait as well. 

“The airport claims have not gone unnoticed,” Ferraro said to the commission. “There has been conversation with the defendants about these.” 

Ferraro said he was “confident” the claims will be addressed in the “near future.” One of the main defendants in the airports’ case, Chemguard, has not had “productive settlement talks.” Ferraro expects to have a better picture on the timing of settlements in the coming months. 

When commission treasurer Rich Knabel asked how much money the settlements would bring the Vineyard airport, Ferraro said the aim is to “get back every dollar that’s been spent on PFAS cleanup, and potentially more” in punitive damages. 

This includes PFAS mitigation work, like testing and installing point-of-entry activated charcoal carbon filters for household wells, which the airport installed on homes south of the airport that had been contaminated. 

According to the Department of Defense, AFFF was used on ships and aircraft because it quickly spreads over the surface of fuel and deprives the fire of oxygen. This allows for quick extinguishing of “even large fires,” and prevents reignition. The proximity of people to fuel and munitions can make fires even more dangerous. 

However, the adverse health and environmental effects associated with extended exposure to, or high concentrations of, PFAS, which are nicknamed “forever chemicals,” led federal government entities, state partners, and researchers to explore an alternative fire suppressant. The FAA released an aircraft firefighting foam transition plan in May, which outlines details associated with moving to a new, fluorine-free foam, known as F3. 

Martha’s Vineyard Airport Director Geoff Freeman told The Times on Friday that the FAA gave airports options to stop using AFFF, but they were allowed to keep the existing inventory. However, Freeman said transitioning to the new foam would not be easy.

“The entire trucks have to be sanitized before that would work, so we’re waiting on guidance on that, and disposal of the older AFFF,” he said. 

AFFF has not been used in training exercises since the PFAS threat was identified, according to Freeman. However, the two fire trucks the airport has do need to go through required testing. Freeman said these vehicles were modified, and a new testing system was implemented so foam from the fire trucks does not get into the environment. 

Freeman expects FAA guidance to be given and the switch to occur at Martha’s Vineyard Airport within the next 12 months.