TRAVERSE CITY — Firefighters twice released foam containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances at Cherry Capital Airport, and Traverse City will pay for the cleanup that followed.
Northern A-1 Environmental Services cleaned up both releases and Elmer’s Crane and Dozer responded to the first, and on Monday city commissioners will vote to pay the total bill of $40,351.16. City manager Marty Colburn said it’s the city’s responsibility to pay, as the releases involved Traverse City firefighters — the department serves the airport under contract.
The first happened Nov. 28 during training with an airport crash-fire truck, according to a memo from Traverse City Fire Department Chief Jim Tuller. A firefighter accidentally pushed the foam system switch, which is next to the water system switch, causing a foam-and-water solution to release onto the airfield ground, Tuller wrote — he confirmed Friday the foam contained PFAS.
More foam came from the same truck on Dec. 5 while checking the truck, Tuller wrote. A firefighter saw foam in the water while testing the truck’s water systems and it flowed onto pavement.
Colburn said the spills affected small areas, and were reported to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as required by law.
“It’s an unfortunate incident but when we train to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios, there’s always some level of risk,” he said.
Tuller’s office and airport operations both investigated the second incident, according to the memo. The fire chief posited the second release was because of an “incomplete and improper” flushing of the foam discharge system, while airport operations blamed operator error.
More than $5,000 of the cost of the second cleanup is in dispute, but Tuller in his memo recommended paying the contractors and resolving it later.
Traverse City Fire Department made changes to avoid future mishaps, including adding a protective switch cover over both airport firefighting trucks’ foam system buttons, running truck system checks on paved areas only and improving practices for flushing the trucks’ foam discharge systems, Tuller wrote.
Prior to the incidents, testing revealed PFAS-contaminated groundwater in the wells of 18 East Bay Township homes north of the airport and a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station located there, as previously reported. Homeowners can connect to a public water system nearby, with funds from the township, Grand Traverse County and state grants covering the connection cost.
Both Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard are looking into possible contamination sources.
The chemicals have been found in groundwater around airports and military bases, and the aqueous fire fighting foams used on them is a common source of the chemical, as previously reported.
Colburn said cleanups after the late November and early December fire fighting foam releases aimed to keep foam from the two releases out of the groundwater, and the releases aren’t the cause of groundwater contamination found in the East Bay Township neighborhood.
Airport and aircraft rescue and firefighting departments must have aqueous fire fighting foam on hand, Tuller said — Federal Aviation Administration requires as much, but that’s set to end October 4, FAA documents show.
Michigan’s state fire marshal in 2018 told departments to stop training with the foams, and to use them only to fight fires involving gasoline and other hydrocarbons, alcohol-based products and aviation crashes, according to a release from the state. For liquid fuel and aviation fires, the foam should be used to save life and protect critical infrastructure.
In 2020 a new law required departments to report any use of the foam within 48 hours, the Associated Press reported.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct a reporter's error misstating the year in which the FAA will stop mandating the use of PFAS-containing fire fighting foam. March 4, 2021