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New laws to help SLO County airport prevent pollution from toxic firefighting foam

Tribune - 5/30/2024

May 30—Toxic firefighting foam has been used at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport since the 1970s, polluting groundwater in the area — but a new package of laws offer the airport support as it transitions to cleaner materials.

President Joe Biden signed the bills into law on May 16.

Rep. Salud Carbajal, who represents San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in the U.S. House of Representatives, celebrated the passage of the bills at a press conference at the airport on Tuesday.

"The bills I wrote not only enlist federal agencies to help remove these contaminates, but also hold them accountable for their plans to phase out these chemicals for good," Carbajal said.

Until October 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration required firefighters to use aqueous film-forming foam when battling aircraft fires. That foam contains per- and polyfluorinated substances, known as PFAS, which are toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, liver damage and pregnancy complications, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease.

"This was not a malicious policy, but it still threatened the health and well-being of nearby residents," Carbajal said. "I am committed to making sure the federal government is helping remove the threat of PFAS chemicals at airports because federal policy is part of the reason we are here."

In September, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the first authorization of a PFAS-free foam to fight aircraft fires. Now, airports can embark on the expensive task of replacing PFAS-laden firefighting equipment.

The package establishes a grant program to reimburse airports for the cost of cleaning and replacing equipment, then requires regular progress reports from the FAA on its plans to phase out firefighting foam containing PFAS.

"At the heart of these bills is a critical opportunity to confront the pervasive issue of PFAS contamination at airports head on," SLO County Regional Airport Deputy Director Courtney Pene said at the press conference. "It's about embracing a cleaner and more responsible approach to airport firefighting services that resonates with our collective commitment to environmental stewardship."

What will the PFAS laws do?

Carbajal's Clean Airport Agenda contains two laws.

The first is the Pollution-Free Aviation Sites Act, which creates a grant program to reimburse airports for the purchase of PFAS-free firefighting foams, related equipment and cleanup costs, Carbajal said.

Individual airports can apply for up to $2 million to reimburse costs incurred after Sept. 12, 2023, which is the date the Federal Aviation Administration authorized airports to buy PFAS-free firefighting foam. The funds will be available for five fiscal years, the bill said.

Next, the Save Our Airports Reporting Act requires the Federal Aviation Administration to submit a report to Congress every 180 days that details progress on national plans to phase out firefighting foam containing PFAS.

The report must include a list of the amount of the PFAS-laden foam at each airport along with guidelines for the airports phasing out those foams and decontaminating their equipment.

The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport has one fire truck with foam that contains PFAS, according to Pene.

The $2 million will help the airport purchase new firefighting foam and replace equipment on the fire truck that contains PFAS — though the grant likely won't cover all of the airport's expenses, she said.

"The costs are going to be quite extensive," Pene said. "$2 million is a great start."

The airport will also incur significant costs for its efforts to remediate the contaminated groundwater.

Larger facilities such as O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and Juneau International Airport in Alaska each spent about $16 million on their remediation efforts so far, according to Pene.

"Continuing clean water forever is not something cheap, but it's something everybody needs and deserves," Pene said.

Carbajal said the bills were inspired by the county's efforts to address PFAS contamination at the SLO County airport.

Over the years, aqueous film-forming foam sprayed from firetrucks at the airport leaked into the groundwater and 42 residential wells nearby.

In July 2022, San Luis Obispo County, Cal Fire and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board agreed to establish a plan to remove PFAS pollution from the soil, groundwater and indoor air around the airport.

According to the plan, the county and Cal Fire must provide PFAS filtration systems to residents with contaminated well water, install treatment systems for the wells, and eventually remediate the contaminated groundwater or find an alternative water source for those properties.

"We have families —generational families — and neighbors to this airport whose water had been impacted by the use of PFAS," Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said at the press conference. "This legislation today really puts the bow on trying to make sure we completely eradicate the PFAS in our local waters."

Regional Water Quality Board executive officer Ryan Lodge also applauded the legislation at the press conference.

"The best way to keep our water clean is to prevent pollutants from getting in there in the first place," Lodge said.

This story was originally published May 30, 2024, 1:50 PM.

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