PFAS water contamination linked to firefighting foam used for training purposes at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Airport appears to be a growing problem for homes that rely on well water drawn from a nearby aquifer.
The Jackson Hole Daily reports that well water sampled from most of the 45 homes closest to the airport have detectable levels of PFAS in it, with one testing just above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety threshold of 70 parts per trillion.
Concerns about PFAS, also known as perfluoroalkyl substances or perfluorochemicals (PFCs), have escalated after Jackson Hole Airport had the water beneath its property tested last winter. The results showed that the groundwater there contained PFAS at 382 parts per trillion – more than five times the EPA’s safety limit.
With the Snake River Aquifer sitting downhill from the commercial airport, airport authorities were concerned that the chemicals could be seeping into the groundwater. They were right. Now airport officials are expanding testing for PFAS water contamination at 144 more homes, with a few others sampled on request.
PFAS: environmental and human toxins
PFAS are a family of manmade chemicals useful for their strong water- and oil-repellant properties. The chemicals have been widely used in the manufacture of non-stick, stain-resistant and water-proofing coatings on fabric and cookware, in firefighting foam and a multitude of other products.
Chemicals in the PFAS family vary in toxicity. The most commonly found PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they are extremely stable and do not break down once released into the environment. PFAS also tend to remain in human tissue permanently.
Exposure to the chemicals over time, even in trace amounts, can lead to serious health problems. These may include developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, and skeletal variations; cancer, including testicular, kidney, and pancreatic cancer; liver damage; adverse immune effects, such as antibody production and weakened immunity; and thyroid problems, to name a few.
PFAS water contamination is likely the most widespread form of exposure. People can also be exposed to PFAS in other ways, such as inhaling dust in spaces with carpets, textiles, and other consumer products treated with PFAS to resist stains; surface water in lakes and ponds; consuming fish from contaminated bodies of water; and various contaminated foods and food packaging.
A costly predicament
According to the Jackson Hole Daily, environmental consultants believe the airport’s expanded testing of residential water wells will provide a better picture of the scope of the PFAS water contamination in the area.
Some of the airport’s board of directors have taken a proactive stance on confronting the problem.
“I understand this is a long-term problem, and we don’t know where it’s going to end up, but given the nature of where the airport is — the (Grand Teton) national park — I would prefer to err on the side of more testing than less,” Jackson Hole Airport board member Bob McLaurin said in a recent Board of Directors meeting, according to the Jackson Hole Daily.
The expanded testing has come at a substantial cost to the airport. In the summer, the airport’s board estimated its worst-case scenario would end up costing $128,000, the Daily reported. That figure now exceeds $2 million.
The expanded testing alone is expected to cost about $188,000. Continued monitoring of well water off of the airport property will cost about $21,000 and $54,000 for twice-yearly testing on airport property. Several thousands of dollars have also been allocated to water filtration systems for the affected homes, many of which have already been installed, and further engineering studies.
Some of the PFAS-related expenses could be taken from the $16 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds the airport received.
It’s unclear how Jackson Hole Airport will contend with PFAS water contamination going forward. The firefighting foam containing PFAS used during aeronautical firefighting training is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so contamination problems could conceivably worsen if the foam remains in use.
THE FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 requires the FAA to stop requiring the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam by Oct. 4, 2021, but the agency has not yet identified an alternate substance that would work as effectively.
At least one airport board member raised concerns over the escalating costs and said the airport should address the problem in a way that will allow the airport “to put on the brake at some point,” according to the Daily.
Due to the FAA’s regulations, all airports bound to FAA rules on firefighting materials could potentially face the same problem as Jackson Hole Airport. While the FAA did issue a CertAlert last year prescribing ways that airports can effectively manage and reduce their firefighting foam use, airports across the country will continue to contaminate soil and water sources until the FAA approves a less toxic and environmentally sound alternative to combatting aviation fires.
Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that results from negligence and wrongful conduct. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of PFC chemicals. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section. We often represent state and municipal governments in litigation of this type.