When an airplane is coming in for a belly landing or has an engine on fire, the only way to prevent the entire plane from becoming engulfed in flames is by dousing the runway or the plane with fire suppression foam. Navy firefighters were trained in the use of fire suppression foam near the airplane runways at Alameda Point.
Over the past two decades, there has been one bad news story after another about the foam’s toxic ingredients contaminating drinking water. These same toxic ingredients are also found in common consumer products. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that as many as 95 percent of the population have traces of these cancer-causing, endocrine-system-disrupting chemicals in their body.
That’s partly because consumer products with the same chemical compounds, such as water repellant outdoor wear, carpets, food packaging, and even cosmetics, are still on the market. Some household brand names that pioneered the marketing of products with the harmful chemicals, like Scotchgard and Teflon, have been reformulated and claim to be safe. Environmental advocacy groups like Earthjustice are not convinced.
As the science about the human health effects has become more compelling and public awareness so great, the military is now embarking on a cleanup program at active and former military bases, including Alameda Point.
In March, the Navy released a draft work plan to investigate soil and groundwater at the former Firefighter Training Area at Alameda Point to determine the extent of the contamination and whether the chemicals are being released into the Oakland Estuary via tidal action. The training area is located within a larger 14-acre cleanup area dubbed Site 14, which has already undergone groundwater cleanup of chlorinated solvents that were once stored there.
The toxic ingredients in the foam are part of a larger group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The acronym for this group is PFAS, pronounced pee-fahs. The chemical formulation is simple, with only carbon and fluorine. The impact on public health and the environment, however, is anything but simple. The virtually indestructible chemicals have found wide-ranging industrial and consumer applications, and they are often referred to as “forever” chemicals because they do not break down naturally.
“This strong bond [between carbon and fluorine] makes PFAS chemicals heat resistant,” states the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental science advocacy organization. “They can also form a film on the surface of petroleum, making them particularly effective at suppressing and extinguishing high-heat petroleum-based fires. In the early 1960s, the Navy worked with 3M to develop firefighting foams containing a combination of PFAS chemicals.”
PFAS cleanup was not dealt with until now because it was not mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Superfund cleanup rules. The EPA classifies PFAS chemicals as only “pollutants,” but not as “hazardous.” A classification of “hazardous” would have required cleanup long ago.
For military base cleanup, the Department of Defense (DoD) had to create its own regulations. “Currently, there are no universally-accepted ecological screening levels for PFAS; however, there is extensive and increasing literature on biological uptake, bioaccumulation, and ecological toxicity of PFAS,” states the Navy’s workplan. “At this time, EPA has not published ecological screening levels for PFAS, but … DoD funded studies … have resulted in recent publications containing ecological screening levels for soil, sediment and surface water that will be included.”
As far back as 1975, scientists at 3M, which manufactured PFAS chemicals, were informed that PFAS builds up in the human body. In 1978, 3M decided not to report the health risks of PFAS, according to EWG. Yet studies of PFAS health effects continued within the military branches and various agencies.
By 2016, cleanup mandates were coming from the Pentagon. As a preliminary measure, at Alameda Point the Navy sampled six groundwater wells next to the firefighters’ concrete training pad where fires were started and then extinguished. The levels of PFAS chemicals in the well samples were not only elevated, they were off the chart. Recently adopted state Water Board drinking water standards, for example, set a limit of 40 parts per trillion. Some water samples at the Firefighter Training Area had more than 35,000 parts per trillion.
The 2021 work plan will expand the testing by boring into the soil down to groundwater level at 20 locations throughout Site 14 and adjacent land. With the new soil and groundwater data, the Navy will be able to delineate the true extent of the contamination and make recommendations for remediation.
The problem with PFAS chemicals is that there is currently no known method of neutralizing the compounds in the same ways that petroleum and solvent compounds can be broken down to harmless substances while still in the soil and groundwater. Drinking water pumped from an aquifer can be filtered through charcoal to remove PFAS. But for contaminated soil and shallow groundwater, it may turn out that the only way to protect people and wildlife is to excavate and remove the contaminated areas.
The Navy plans to begin its testing of soil and groundwater in September, with a cleanup plan to follow. Most of the cleanup area is planned for a shoreline regional park.
Originally published in the Alameda Sun.
“Breaking Down PFAS” Earthjustice, October 9, 2020
“Timeline: ‘Forever Chemicals’ and Firefighters” “Here’s what manufacturers and users of PFAS-based firefighting foam and PFAS-coated gear knew and when they knew it.” – Environmental Working Group
“Mapping PFAS Contamination at 206 U.S. Military Sites” Environmental Working Group
“DOD Efforts to Clean Up PFAS” Department of Defense News, March 25, 2021
“Regulators in the United States and Europe Move to Restrict PFAS in Products and Wastes” Jones Day law firm commentary, January 2021
EPA Technical Fact Sheet on PFAS – November 2017