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A professor’s hunch reveals ‘forever chemicals’ near Eastern Iowa Airport
Airport negotiating to buy property or pay for a new well
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Eastern Iowa Airport is considering buying the property of a family whose well is contaminated by toxic chemicals linked to firefighting foam used at airports since the 1960s.
The airport is negotiating with Paul and Nikki Hynek, of 3400 Walford Rd., to possibly buy their property or provide the homeowners with a new well, according to Airport Director Marty Lenss.
Tests show the Hyneks’ well had more than three times the amount of per- and polyfluorinated substances — or PFAS — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had said was safe. Now the agency says no amount is safe.
Lenss isn’t certain the PFAS came from firefighting foam used at the airport, but it’s a strong possibility.
“We absolutely have it. We absolutely have sprayed it in testing,” he said of the foam. But since PFAS can be found in many other substances, including fertilizer, stain-resistant clothing, carpet, cleaning products, plastic, paints and some bio waste, “it’s difficult to identify the source in groundwater in general.”
Chemicals used to fight fuel fires
Minnesota-based 3M started manufacturing PFAS in the 1950s, putting the chemicals into several products, including Scotchgard fabric protector, the company reported.
The U.S. Navy and 3M created aqueous film-forming foam after 134 sailors were killed in a 1967 fire aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam, Bloomberg reported. The PFAS in the foam helped cool and suppress liquid fuel fires.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports keep this foam on hand and test with it so firefighters are prepared for a plane fire. In previous decades, Cedar Rapids firefighters sprayed the foam in the grass as part of daily checks of the firetrucks, Lenss said.
But evolving science has shown even small amounts of PFAS may be harmful to humans. Studies with laboratory animals indicate the chemicals may harm growth and development and affect reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system and liver function, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
A new peer-reviewed Danish study shows exposure among pregnant women can lead to lower sperm count and quality in their children’s later life, the Guardian reported in October.
The FAA still mandates airports use the foam, although the agency has said it will certify a new PFAS-free foam in 2023. The Eastern Iowa Airport minimizes use of the foam by running training drills with just water and storing the foam in 5-gallon buckets on an aboveground trailer.
Hunch leads to testing
After hearing about PFAS spreading in groundwater around airports in other states, David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, wondered if private wells near Iowa airports also contained the so-called “forever chemicals.”
He worked with Linn County Public Health in 2020 to reach out to people who live near The Eastern Iowa Airport to see if they wanted free well testing.
“We looked where we did because we knew there were potential sources there, and we found it,” Cwiertny said.
They tested 14 wells and found PFAS at levels above the previous EPA standard in two wells. The Hyneks’ well had total PFAS levels in the range of 240 to 260 parts per trillion — 3.5 times higher than the EPA’s previous lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for two types perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) combined.
The UI purchased reverse osmosis filters for both homeowners whose wells tested over 70 parts per trillion. The EPA released a new advisory in June saying any level of PFOA and PFOS may lead to negative health effects.
What is the source?
The Hyneks first approached Cedar Rapids about extending city water to their house on Walford Road, Lenss said. That option was ruled out because there are too few homeowners in the area and the water line would become stagnant without regular flushing, he said.
“When we first approached them and initiated conversations with them and it was clear the city water wasn’t going to be an option, on the (Airport) Commission side, we began to provided bottled water service to the house and still do today,” Lenss said.
But taking that step doesn’t mean airport leaders know the PFAS in firefighting foam is the source of the groundwater contamination.
“It’s assumed, but it’s not clear that it is,” Lenss said.
The airport hired Foth Engineering, of Cedar Rapids, in 2021 to further study groundwater near the airport. They surveyed former firefighters about where they sprayed the foam and then drilled wells nearby, Lenss said.
Foth Engineering Report - PFAS by Gazetteonline on Scribd
“The highest concentrations were identified at MW-101, MW-102, MW-103, and MW-104, which directly correlates with locations where AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) equipment testing was historically conducted,” the May report states.
Another potential source of PFAS in groundwater near the airport could be dehydrated human waste from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which the city applied to airport-owned farm fields in the late 2000s, Lenss said. The city halted that practice, mainly because of the smell.
Other sites in Midwest
One place where firefighting foam was fingered as the source of well pollution was Bemidji, a city of 15,000 in northern Minnesota.
The city’s water treatment plant and its five wells are on the grounds of the Bemidji Regional Airport, where soil and groundwater tests since the 2000s showed PFAS, the Minnesota Department of Health reported.
“They were able to blend their water supply among those wells for quite some time to provide water that met state health standards,” Nancy Quattlebaum Burke, an attorney representing the city, told The Gazette.
But in 2017, the health department issued health advisories for all the wells, causing Bemidji to take action.
“The city hired a really good qualified engineering firm to assess what needed to be done, what the cost was of what needed to be done and what would be the long-term cost of operating,” Quattlebaum Burke said. “We had very well-documented damages. We had all of our evidence. We had everything prepared and our potential litigation funding lined up.”
3M agreed in 2021 to pay Bemidji $12.5 million toward the ongoing costs of operating a new water treatment plant. The Minnesota Legislature also allocated $11 million toward the upgrades.
Options in Iowa
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is working on the first phase of determining if the area around The Eastern Iowa Airport is a PFAS contamination site.
“Identification of a responsible party and a source area for the contamination is a vital step in the process of determining what happens at an impacted receptor (such as a well),” Iowa DNR spokeswoman Tammie Krausman said in an email. If a “source area and/or responsible party” can be identified, the state can pursue remediation and seek to limit environmental impact, she said.
The Iowa DNR also is investigating how one of two drinking water wells in Central City, 25 miles northeast of Cedar Rapids, became contaminated with PFAS, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported in March. The city decided earlier this year to only use the contaminated well in emergencies, such as fighting fires or if the first well fails. Tests showed PFAS levels of 62 parts per trillion.
The airport has considered its options, including joining a multi-jurisdictional lawsuit against companies that produce foam with PFAS and filing an insurance claim to recover some costs for remediation, Lenss said.
“We haven't approached or signed on as an airport to any sort of class action discussions,” he said. “It’s on the table, but has not been an active conversation.”
One of the challenges with these options would be proving, definitively, what caused the PFAS pollution in groundwater, Lenss said.
Cwiertny thinks the city should consider litigation.
“It’s acknowledging that these chemicals were tricky because some places had to use them,” he said. “But it doesn’t take away that we now know the chemicals are problematic and we have to figure out how to help the people who are now questioning the quality of their water supply.“
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