CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The same PFAS-laced firefighting foam that has polluted lakes, rivers and wells around Air Force bases was used extensively at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Target 8 has found.
Three former Ford Airport fire chiefs told Target 8 the likely carcinogen drained into the ground untreated. They said the airport and the state should test the wells of nearby homes.
“They need to identify the plume, if there is one, and they need to immediately advise the people downstream to stop drinking the water,” former Airport Fire Chief Glen Lathers said.
There are more than 400 homes in a neighborhood downhill from the airport and along the Thornapple River, most built in the 1970s and 1980s, some worth more than $1 million, most with wells.
A tip led Target 8 to track down the former airport fire chiefs, two of them in Florida, who said they used the foam mostly for training.
“We used it a lot, all the time,” said Bryan Kimble, who started as a firefighter at the airport in 1979 and served as chief from 2004 to 2010.
Lathers, who was chief from 1979 to 1989, said his department used the foam “probably a thousand times or so.” He said he ordered 1,800 gallons a year during his decade there.
“In a typical training session, you’d have eight to 10 fires and you’d use foam at least three times,” Lathers said.
It’s called aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, first made by 3M.
A recent survey of airports in the U.S. found most had used the foam and let it drain into the ground.
“Anytime there’s wells around an airport, that should be a flag,” said Grand Valley State University professor Rick Rediske, who was instrumental in exposing the use of PFAS by Wolverine Worldwide in Rockford.
The chemical has been found in hundreds of residential wells around Rockford, in some cases in levels well above safety limits.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation
FORD OFFICIALS AWARE OF POTENTIAL A YEAR AGO
Airport CEO James Gill told Target 8 he first became aware of the possibility of PFAS contamination at the Ford a year ago and has started investigating. He said he plans to work with the county and the DEQ.
“We know that we used it and it’s a matter of the extent and how it would get absorbed,” Gill said. “Could it get in the groundwater? I’m sure it’s possible and that’s what we need to investigate and help address.”
The DEQ said 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. “At this point, we do not know any details about what products were used nor when and how they were used, although the airport is working to answer those questions.
SIMILAR TO WOLVERINE
The PFAS compounds are similar to those in the Wolverine Worldwide water crisis that has spread to an area six miles long and five miles wide in northern Kent County. That was caused by Scotchgard, also made by 3M, which Wolverine used to treat shoes. Wolverine dumped it in sludge decades ago.
Experts say PFAS is almost indestructible in the environment. It won’t go away. It can stay in the human body for years.
A study in West Virginia found probable links to testicular and kidney cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid problems, high cholesterol and hypertension in pregnancy.
Before he became the airport fire chief in 1979, Lathers was an Air Force firefighter. That’s when he first started using the foam, he said.
“I distinctly remember them talking about how safe it was, so we didn’t need to take any special precautions,” Lathers said. “I didn’t count on it being a hazardous product.”
He says he used it a K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in the Upper Peninsula, which the state has identified as a PFAS plume.
The FAA required airports, like the Ford, to use the foam and train with it.
FOAM SIMILAR TO ‘MR. BUBBLE’
Aerial photographs from the 1990s show a circle of charred ground in the northeast corner of the Ford airport where firefighters trained for two decades. They also trained firefighters from other airports and from local fire departments, the chiefs said.
“We had pit fires, literally pits in the ground,” Kimble said.
They doused old pallets with contaminated airplane fuel, then set them on fire, he said.
“The federal government said you will have these pit fires, you will do the training, each firefighter will fight live fires,” Kimble said.
They often hand-loaded the liquid foam into the fire trucks, where it was mixed with water.
The foam worked best on fuel fires.
“That was the mindset when this first came out, this is the greatest invention since peanut butter,” Kimble said.
In a fuel fire, it’s the vapors that burn, not the liquid. The foam would spread across the fuel and seal in the vapors.
“When you hit a flammable liquid with it, it worked now,” Kimble said. “It would shut the fire down now.”
He said the foam resembled, “Mr. Bubble, soap suds.”
“When it came out of the (fire truck) turrets, it was like fluffy suds,” he said.
In the early 1980s, the airport lined the pit with cement and built a mock plane for crash drills.
Lathers recalls using the foam twice on small plane crashes at the Ford in the 1980s, both near the runway.
“There were times it was sprayed on the runways for different drills that the FAA required you to have,” he said.
By 2000, the airport stopped practicing with the foam. Firefighters started training at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“If we would have known back then when we first got it that it was going to be an environmental impact later, I really think we would have tried to find a better way, a cleaner agent, to help,” Kimble said.
The airport is about 800 feet above sea level, but the elevation drops 130 feet toward homes and to the Thornapple River.
“That’s similar to House Street where the landfill was way on top of the high ground and then it slopes down to the Grand River,” said Rediske, the GVSU professor.
PFAS has contaminated more than 500 wells in northern Kent County, leading to lawsuits and claims of illnesses and three deaths.
“I’d be very concerned because the airport’s built on fill and it’s also built on very permeable soil because they want all the water to spread out and run off,” Rediske said.
“It’s very soluble,” Rediske said of PFAS. “So it would go into the water real easily, and then it would get into drinking water of people down-gradient. It would get into the stream.
“You’re going to have to test the houses, and if you don’t find anything, then you’re going to have to figure out where it’s gone,” he said. “Because it was there, it was applied there and you need to figure out where it’s going.”
Full statement from the DEQ:
“The MDEQ is committed to rooting out sources of PFAS in our state’s water and taking steps to protect people from unacceptable exposures where PFAS is found.
“The DEQ is working with the State Fire Marshall to provide guidance to airports, fire departments and emergency responders on best management practices for the storage, use and disposal of PFAS containing firefighting foam.
“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.
“Our top priority remains protecting people and the environment and we are committed to working with aviation officials, the State Fire Marshall and first responders throughout the state to maintain public safety and protect the environment.”
Full statement from Cascade Township Supervisor Bob Beahan:
“The health and safety of our residents are always top priorities for Cascade Township. To date, we have received no inquiries from residents with concerns over water quality.
“Residents in Cascade receive their water in one of two ways: either from a private well or from the Grand Rapids municipal system. Private wells are permitted through Kent County Public Health Department.
“While we are aware of the PFAS situation in neighboring communities, we have yet to hear of an issue with a commercial airport. To our knowledge, the only U.S. airports that have been impacted are on military bases.
“We have reached out to the airport and to county and state officials to begin to gather information. At this point, we do not know any details about what products were used nor when and how they were used, although the airport is working to answer those questions.
“The airport has always been a good community partner. Their 2015 investment in a storm water treatment plant demonstrates its responsiveness to environmental issues. We expect the airport will continue to be a good neighbor and good environmental steward.
“As a community, we are committed to work with the airport and with the county and state officials to provide our residents with access to timely and accurate information.