A group of man-made “forever chemicals” known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are being recognized as a growing health threat that many industrial and commercial sites are taking steps to protect the environment and minimize future regulatory-driven cleanups.
Airports are no exception.
PFAS can be found in many common industrial and consumer products, which has led to their pervasive broad detection in the global environment. At airports, PFAS are commonly released to the environment as a component in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is used in fire suppression systems.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is following its PFAS Strategic Road Map to address PFAS through research, restrictions on releases, and holding businesses and agencies who have been responsible for introducing the chemicals into the environment accountable to remediate contamination.
Regulatory drivers have been evolving at a fast pace in recent years at the state and federal levels and many airports are finding it challenging to not only keep on pace with compliance but to proactively address operational, financial and reputational risks.
As the EPA prepares to establish and enforce its regulations, there are three key proactive considerations that can help airports stay ahead of the pace.
1. AFFF Replacement with Fluorine-free Alternatives
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates which types of firefighting foams may be used by Part 139 airports. Historically, the FAA relied on MIL-F24385, an AFFF specification that requires PFAS in the foam formulation.
A new performance-based standard (Military Specification MIL-PRF-32725) for fluorine free foam (F3) was published in January. Although operators are authorized by the FAA to continue using AFFF for the time being, military-specified F3 foams are expected to be available for purchase and use in the next few months.
As airports phase out AFFF, there are many facets of the transition and operations with F3 that need to be considered.
- Once products are certified under the new specification, demand may overwhelm the supply chain.
- Unlike AFFF, new F3 foams lack compatibility with other F3s, so they cannot be mixed together.
- The new F3s have some different characteristics than AFFF products and are not available in pre-mixed solutions.
- Product application may vary based on the new F3 selected and will be different from application/use of AFFF.
- AFFF change-out should be thoughtfully considered including system clean-out and disposal of spent product or firewater.
What can airports do now?
It is important to understand their inventory of assets potentially impacted, closely evaluate system and use/training requirements of new F3s, track regulatory activity that may ban use of AFFF and/or handling and disposal, and appropriately plan for transition, both financially and operationally.
2. Monitoring and Controlling PFAS Discharges with Effluent Limit Guidelines
A focal point of the EPA Strategic Road Map is action through the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA is the primary federal law governing surface water pollution. Environmental health and safety managers from across EPA-identified PFAS Handling Industry Sectors, which includes airports and Part 139 airports, are familiar with these CWA programs.
In December 2022, the EPA issued guidance to states administering components of the CWA on point source PFAS discharges in National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and through the pretreatment and monitoring programs. The guidance outlines how states can compel monitoring for PFAS discharges, identify sources and take steps to reduce them where they are detected.
Airports are specifically listed within the guidance as applicable discharges for PFAS monitoring under the program. Widespread implementation of the program will enable the EPA and the states “to obtain comprehensive information on the sources and quantities of PFAS discharges, which can be used to inform appropriate next steps to limit the discharges of PFAS.”
Planned steps include promulgation of effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs). In Effluent Guidelines Program Plan 15 released in January, the EPA stated that it plans to continue monitoring the airport industry and provide updates in subsequent ELG program plans.
Data that is generated by implementation of the guidance are stored in the Integrated Compliance Information System (ICIS)-NPDES. Related data resources include the USEPA’s Water Pollutant Loading Tool, which derives annual pollutant loadings and the PFAS Analytic Tools, which provide PFAS information in a geographical information system format.
What can airports do now?
Those that are sensitive to being publicly identified as discharging PFAS may wish to better understand the potential for their effluent to contain PFAS and, if necessary, take corrective measures before being compelled by regulators.
Desktop screening of outfall flow for upstream contact with known-PFAS containing processes, products or affected media is a common method used to gain a better understanding of effluent composition. Outfall sampling, potentially under the direction of legal counsel, is another option.
3. Managing PFAS Contaminated Media
In April, the EPA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking the public for input regarding potential future hazardous substance designations of some PFAS under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as “Superfund.”
The designation of some PFAS as a hazardous substance under CERCLA means that the EPA has the authority to regulate and oversee the cleanup and management of contamination. It provides a legal framework for addressing the contamination and ensures that responsible parties take necessary actions to mitigate risks and protect human health and the environment.
For airports, this will trigger mandatory reporting of releases above reportable quantities, investigation and remediation of releases, and liability for clean-up costs and damages to the environment.
What can airports do now?
Many proactive measures should be considered to minimize, mitigate and eliminate potential liability, such as:
- understand potential areas of historic and ongoing releases of contamination and potential onsite and offsite sources;
- implementing immediate soil containment measures where soil has been currently disturbed or stockpiled;
- developing a plan for storage and disposal as well as monitoring and testing;
- developing a forecast of construction projects that may require soil management and/or de-watering;
- developing a soil management plan and policy;
- ensuring proper storage and disposal; and
- staying informed on regulatory changes and support advocacy efforts during the rule-making process.
Overall, a proactive approach to tracking regulatory developments, planning and implementing foam transitions and ensuring permit compliance represents a thoughtful strategy to reduce PFAS liability at airports.
[To subscribe to Insights, contact the editorial staff at [email protected].]