CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Former airport fire chiefs are questioning why the Gerald R. Ford International Airport didn’t act sooner to investigate the PFAS-tainted firefighting foam they say they used there.
Ford Airport CEO James Gill said he became aware of the potential for PFAS contamination a year ago as news of polluted Air Force bases started to spread.
“So we’ve been looking into it over the last year. We’re really trying to recreate that history we don’t have,” Gill said.
Among the questions, he said: How much they used, where they used it, and which way the water flows.
Three former Ford airport fire chiefs, all tracked down by Target 8, said they haven’t heard from airport officials. They were in charge of buying and using the foam.
The airport had yet to contact the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees such investigations.
Longtime airport board member Ted Vonk said he knew nothing about the PFAS potential.
“It’s brand new to me,” Vonk told Target 8. “It hasn’t come up to the board members yet, so it is new to me. But as of the other problems around the airport, we get a handle on it and we’re going to take care of it.”
CHEMICAL USED TO FIGHT FIRES FOR DECADES
The former airport fire chiefs told Target 8 they used AFFF firefighting foam at the Ford for decades, starting in the late 1970s, mostly for training — all required by the FAA. They say thousands of gallons drained untreated into the ground. The training ended in about 2000, but PFAS, a likely carcinogen, can stick around for a long time in the environment and in the human body.
“When the airport has the knowledge that know it’s a hazard, it wasn’t at the time, now it’s a hazard and now you need to be proactive,” said Glen Lathers, airport fire chief from 1979 to 1989.
It’s the same PFAS-tainted foam, the former chiefs said, that contaminated Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and other bases around the country.
“They need to identify the plume, if there is one, and they need to immediately need to advise the people downstream to stop drinking the water,” Lathers said.
“If it was my well, and I was downstream from it, I would be very, very concerned,” said Bryan Kimble, fire chief from 2004 to 2010. “I would want somebody to be responsible for it.”
FOAM ON THORNAPPLE RIVER TRIBUTARY
Then there’s the mysterious foam discovered by Target 8 on Wednesday on a stream near the airport. The stream leads to the Thornapple River.
The bright, white foam piled up at the end of a culvert that carries the stream under Oak Tree Drive SE. Bubbles clung to a log above the water.
Target 8 reported it to the DEQ. The DEQ said it plans to investigate whether it’s the same kind of PFAS foam found on a lake and stream near Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
“Certainly we’d be anxious to hear what the state has to say as well,” said Gill, the airport CEO.
NEIGHBORS WANT WELLS TESTED
Some airport neighbors said they had no idea about the potential for PFAS. They called for well testing.
“The only way to find out if that’s true or not is to actually test them,” said Raul Alvarez, who lives on Forest Valley Drive SE. “To me, it just makes sense. It’s just logical that that’s the step you take.”
Alvarez’s family is among more than 400 in the neighborhood wedged between the airport and the Thornapple River.
“It’s a family-friendly community, lots of kids,” he said. “There’s no sidewalks and no one has ever wanted them because it’s just friendly and people just enjoy it, so it would affect a lot of families and it would affect kids, and that’s probably one of the worst things we can do.”
Most are on well water.
“It’s unfortunate given what we’ve seen not only in Flint but closer to home here in Rockford,” he said. “I’d hate for that to happen to any other residents in the community.”
Scott Rissi, president of the Thornapple River Association, remembers seeing the black smoke from the practice fires at the airport years ago. He lives on the east side of the river, across from the airport.
“If I lived in that area (on the west bank of the Thornapple), I would have my well checked,” Rissi said. “I know that the water runs in that direction, the groundwater’s running in that direction, and if there’s problems there, expose them, bring light to them.”
The DEQ told Target 8 that it planned to work with the airport.
“We do not yet have any information regarding the use of PFAS containing firefighting foam at the Gerald R. Ford airport, but we are available to provide technical support to assist the airport to investigate any potential ground water contamination in the area,” DEQ spokesman Scott Dean said in a written statement.
Cascade Township Supervisor Rob Beahan said it was the first he’s heard of the possibility of PFAS contamination at the airport.
“We have reached out to the airport and to county and state officials to begin to gather information,” he said in a statement released to Target 8 on Wednesday.