KALAMAZOO, MI — A simple device was installed after a spill of PFAS foam at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. More changes could be coming after the city of Kalamazoo examines practices at the airport, which is stuck without a viable alternative to the PFAS-formulated foam, according to the airport’s director.
A zip tie was installed on the valve where PFAS foam accidentally spilled on March 30 after someone opened the valve, Airport Director Craig Williams told MLive.
“We were flushing out the water tank and somebody inadvertently turned the valve on the foam tank,” Williams said.
It happened about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 30. Firefighting foam from the tank was released into the sanitary sewer. There is no danger to nearby drinking water supplies, the city said.
The aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, products contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that are known environmental contaminants and can cause health issues if consumed.
Williams said the zip tie installed on the valve is meant to create a barrier someone has to cut to open the valve, and meant to prevent an unintentional release of PFAS foam in the future.
The water valve and the foam valve are next to each other, Williams said. There is no reason to have the valve open unless draining the tank, he said, so the zip tie will not make an impact to the firefighting operation.
“We’re embarrassed it happened, so we want to make sure we red the risk of something like that happens again, and make sure we have strong mitigation measures in place” to prepare for any other incidents, Williams said. The airport is looking at policies and procedures that may need to be examined or updated in all areas, he said.
“It could be PFAS this time, it could be a de-icing spill, or it might not be a spill it all,” Williams said. “It could be an accident, but we want to make sure we have the right culture in place so were addressing needs and looking at ourselves.”
Aviation, like other industries, has risk to it, he said.
“You just have to be honest with yourself and accept those risks and work to minimize and protect,” he said. “Not just for passengers, people on the airplane, but also for the employees and people in the community.”
The city of Kalamazoo has oversight of the sewer system.
“The airport has policies and procedures and systems in place that will most likely will have to change as a result of this event,” Kalamazoo Public Services Director James Baker said Wednesday.
The city can require certain actions to protect the system, Baker said.
“We’re looking for improvements in policy and procedures, we’re looking at improvements in engineering and facility controls,” he said. “It could be changes in chemical sources or something like that.”
The city will be looking at factors such as general industry standards for operating and maintaining chemical storage onsite at the airport.
“We’ll be looking to ensure that something like this is not repeated,” Baker said.
In 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill into law to regulate the use of PFAS containing firefighting foam. The law requires municipal or airport fire chiefs to file a written report about a foam-use incident to the Michigan pollution emergency alert system within 48 hours.
As of June 2020, state officials reported 30,000 gallons of PFAS-containing firefighting foam had already been collected from municipal fire departments and commercial airports as part of a voluntary collection and disposal program.
While some fire departments surrendered all remaining foams with PFAS and have switched to a different product, Williams said the airport is stuck with no viable alternative.
“Airports across the nation are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place here because we can only use foams that are mandated approved by the (Federal Aviation Administration),” he said. “And so, while the state has some recommendations, we’re also required to use the ones that are approved by the FAA.”
In 2018, Congress directed the FAA to begin researching alternatives, but an approval has not happened yet, Williams said. A defense bill passed in December requires the military to phase out PFAS-laden foam use starting in 2024.
That means the airport is stuck using the PFAS “forever chemicals” foam, which can cause health issues if consumed. Until there is an approved alternative, the existing PFAS foams will continue to be used, Williams said.
An April 2020 statement published by Environmental Working Group entitled, “It’s Time To Switch to PFAS-Free Firefighting Foams” makes the case to speed up the switch. The FAA should quickly move to allow airports to use fluorine-free foams that meet international aviation standards, the article states.
The foam kept at the airport is rarely used for firefighting, Williams said. Airport firefighters do not use the foam for training, he said.
Airport workers notified the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy about the spill about five hours after it happened, the city of Kalamazoo said.
Test results from water samples taken April 2 came back Wednesday, April 7, and showed a spike in levels of PFOS, a type of PFAS, in the treated water being released into the Kalamazoo River. The level was 2,630 parts per trillion, or more than 200 times greater than a national water quality standard of 12 parts per trillion.
Baker said the spill had the highest levels of PFAS ever processed at the wastewater treatment plant.
He said the city is taking more measurements, including sampling of the Kalamazoo River, and monitoring the situation. Updated numbers are expected to be available for release this week, he said.