Firefighting Foam Named as Culprit

Report IDs four sites on and near airport as sources of the contamination
A report from AECOM Technical Services Northeast found that past use or storage of firefighting foam at and near the East Hampton Airport had impacted groundwater at the site. Doug Kuntz

A report completed in November by a consultant to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation identified “four distinct areas of concern” with respect to perfluorinated chemicals in groundwater around East Hampton Airport in Wainscott. 

The compounds, used in firefighting foam and other products, were discovered in 2017 to have contaminated residential wells in Wainscott, prompting the East Hampton Town Board to declare a state of emergency, form a water supply district, and join with the Suffolk County Water Authority to install 45,000 feet of water main to connect affected properties. 

The report from AECOM Technical Services Northeast stated that past use or storage of aqueous film-forming foam had impacted groundwater at the site, identifying concentrations above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory level of .07 parts per billion. Drinking water collected from leased aircraft hangars on the property also tested positive for the compounds, as did soil samples, though in lower concentrations. 

The chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, were detected at an area north of the airfield, “where firefighting foam was historically used for crash response and training,” the report states; at an area on the northeastern section of the approximately 610-acre site, where aqueous film-forming foam “was deployed during a mass casualty training exercise”; beneath an aircraft rescue and firefighting station, where the foam is stored but discharge could not be confirmed, and beneath a parcel occupied by the East Hampton Town Police Department. 

Of 25 locations at which groundwater was sampled in May and August, including 18 temporary wells, three piezometers — devices that measure groundwater pressure — a county monitoring well, and a storm drain, the E.P.A.’s health advisory level was exceeded at six. Low levels of PFOS and PFOA were recorded in several other locations. 

The report includes a recommendation for supplemental investigation of the areas of concern to delineate the nature and extent of impacts. That would include sampling to evaluate whether an ongoing source of perfluorinated chemical contamination to groundwater exists in soil at each area of concern, expansion of the on-site monitoring well network, a sampling program to complete horizontal and vertical delineation of effects on groundwater, and installation of off-site monitoring wells to determine whether impacted groundwater has migrated from the airport. 

“Since contamination was discovered in the East Hampton area, D.E.C. continues to be a constant presence in the community, and working aggressively to ensure public health and the environment are protected,” Mike Ryan, the director of the D.E.C.’s Division of Environmental Remediation, said in a statement provided to The Star. The agency’s site characterization for the airport “revealed four distinct areas of concern where additional study is needed to fully delineate the nature and extent of the identified contamination,” he said. “This study will help inform appropriate cleanup measures and further D.E.C. actions, and we will continue to keep the community informed as these investigations continue.” 

PFOS and PFOA are currently unregulated, but the E.P.A. issued the health advisory level to protect the most sensitive populations, including fetuses during pregnancy and breast-fed babies, against potential adverse health effects. According to the E.P.A., studies on animals indicate that exposure to the two compounds over certain levels may also negatively affect the thyroid, liver, and immune systems, and cause cancer, among other effects. 

Once discovery of the perfluorinated chemicals was announced in the fall of 2017, the town provided bottled water to affected residents and instituted a rebate program for those who opted to install a point-of-entry treatment system on their property. A Southampton lawyer filed a lawsuit against the town on behalf of a Wainscott resident in the spring, alleging that it was negligent in allowing polluting businesses to operate on leased land at the airport and on Industrial Road. 

Last month, Councilman Jeff Bragman, who is the town board’s liaison to both the airport and the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee, announced that the town was suing multiple manufacturers of aqueous film-forming foam, including the 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products, and National Foam Inc., as well as the Bridgehampton Fire District and East Hampton Village. 

“This is a claim against other companies to contribute to the Town of East Hampton to help offset the costs that we’ve incurred to remediate these chemical contaminations,” he said on Dec. 20. 

The following day, the town announced that the last 1,000 feet of water main would be installed in the first week of January. Of approximately 520 residences in the water supply district, 124 have been connected to public water. 

Those seeking more information can contact Eric Obrecht, the D.E.C.’s site project manager, at 518-402-9625.