Some firetrucks still carry toxic PFAS foam
Multiple fire stations in Connecticut still have trucks that contain banned firefighting foam in their tanks that can't be used because of its toxicity, mostly due to a lack of funding to remove the poisonous substance.
According to legislation signed into law in July 2021, firefighting foam and other materials containing perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or "forever chemicals," were banned in Connecticut after October 2021.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection stated that the ban would occur in phases. The ban on the use of PFAS in food packaging goes into effect by the end of 2023 and specifically states that the chemicals used to replace PFAS in the packaging must be less hazardous.
The ban came two years after the chemicals made their way into the Farmington River after a spill at Bradley International Airport in June 2019.
In April elevated levels of the toxin were found in Hockanum River fish, leading the state to issue an advisory warning residents to not consume any caught between Vernon and East Hartford.
To push the cleaning process forward, the state initiated the Aqueous Film-Forming Foam Take-Back Program in April 2021, which was funded by $2 million in state bonds.
DEEP spokesman Will Healey said 258 municipal fire departments in Connecticut have participated in the program so far, resulting in the removal of over 35,000 gallons of containerized foam concentrate.
The foam was disposed of in a secure landfill in Canada, according to DEEP Remediaton Division Assistant Director Ray Frigon.
Frigon said that half of the $2 million was used to remove the aqueous foam already in municipal fire department containers. The other half went to decontaminate regional foam containers in Norwich, Winsted and Willington — three of the eight regional containers in Connecticut that holds AFFF.
In May the state AFFF Take-Back Program released a document saying any remaining funds from the program would be used solely for collecting and disposing of toxic foam that fire departments drained from their trucks into containers.
That left municipalities with the costly bill to clean out their fire truck tanks.
The document gives directions on how fire departments should drain their tanks, rinsing them multiple times with water that exceeds 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
That process only removes 95% of PFAS substances while cleaning agents used by the state removes 99% of the substances.
But using those proprietary-cleaning agents are more expensive than initially anticipated, state officials wrote in the document, "and additional funding would be needed to clean the approximately 400 municipal fire apparatus with onboard AFFF systems statewide."
When Ellington Fire Chief Jack Rich learned the state would not fund the decontamination of two trucks in his town, he had no choice but to bring the issue to the Board of Finance.
At a June 1 meeting, Rich told the Finance Board that 30 gallons of foam had not yet been removed from trucks at the Crystal Lake Fire Department and the Ellington Volunteer Fire Department.
"We waited so long because the state was supposed to supply us with the funding for this," Rich said.
Finance Board Chairman Michael Purcaro, who is also the Town Administrator for Vernon, said the Ellington board was more than cooperative to help push the process forward.
"Obviously this is one of those things, from a regulatory standpoint, we have to do and we have to address," Purcaro said at the meeting.
By June 9, the trucks' tanks were cleaned of the toxic particles and have been replaced with PFAS-free firefighting foam. The cost to decontaminate both trucks and properly dispose of the foam was about $5,900, Ellington officials said.
South Windsor Fire Chief Kevin Cooney said they are also looking for the best way to dispose of the remaining toxic foam in some of their fire trucks.
"There's just no financial support," Cooney said of the state mandate. "That's going to be an expense on our dime, so now we're trying to get quotes."
Manchester Fire Chief Dan French said his department stripped their trucks of firefighting foam containing PFAS in 2019, before the price started to increase. The old foam is still stored at the firehouse, he said.
And in Enfield, two of five fire departments still have trucks with the toxic foam stored inside their tanks.
Thompsonville Fire Chief David Deskis said the department is waiting for state funds to clean two of its trucks. Enfield Fire District 1 Chief Edward N. Richards said one of its trucks also has toxic foam onboard, but the state hasn't come up with a plan to fund the cleaning of the tanks as yet.
Possible funding could come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On June 15 the EPA announced that it is inviting states to apply for funding to address PFAS issues through the bipartisan $10 billion federal Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act.
"We're currently in the process of determining exactly what activities are eligible under that allotment," Frigon said.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, long-term exposure to PFAS can cause cancer, liver problems, birth defects, high blood pressure and obesity.
Gordon Macmillan, Battalion Chief at the town of Manchester Fire-Rescue-EMS, said that several members have been diagnosed with cancer, causing him to be "very proactive" with firefighter hygiene and cancer mitigation.
"Once we heard that foam was possibly one of the things causing issues, we moved it off our apparatus," he added.
Patrick Kearney, head of the Manchester Water and Sewer department, said the town found PFAS in several water sources during its last testing cycle in 2021. He added that the levels were below the regulatory limit, however, and that the tap water is safe to drink.
According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, these substances are sometimes referred to as "forever particles" because they never break down and can stay in the environment forever.
A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 97% of Americans already have some PFAS in their blood, making the further removal of the substance from everyday objects that much more important.
Journal Inquirer Staff Writers Eric Bedner, Susan Danseyar, Austin Mirmina, and Joseph Villanova contributed to this story.
Collin covers East Windsor and Windsor Locks for the Journal Inquirer.
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