The State Journal has reported on trace amounts of perflourinated (PFAS) compounds being found in water samples from 10 municipal wells in Madison.
I appreciate the attention and scrutiny these chemicals are receiving in the media, by elected officials, regulators and concerned citizens. Everyone should feel confident the water they are drinking in their homes and workplaces is safe.
Yet as chairman of the Badger Air Community Council, a nonprofit that supports Wisconsin Air National Guard 115th Fighter Wing, I want to highlight some additional information.
Firefighting foam from the Dane County Regional Airport has been suspected as a source of the PFAS compounds. And the Wisconsin National Guard is the first responder to fires involving all commercial or military aircraft at the airport. The Wisconsin National Guard has been providing Federal Aviation Administration-approved aircraft rescue and firefighting to the airport since the late 1980s. The National Guard took over these services from Dane County, and in doing so provides the county with $2.7 million in annual operating savings to county property taxpayers.
FAA certification of the airport drives the requirements for fire and emergency response. These requirements prescribe the type of firefighting equipment, foam, training and equipment checks that the National Guard must follow. If the city of Madison or Dane County were to provide these firefighting services, they would have had to meet the same requirements.
Aqueous Film Forming Foam, which contains PFOS and PFOA, began to be used at all U.S. commercial airports in the 1970s, including Dane County’s. The foam was certified by the FAA and found to be the most efficient extinguishing method for petroleum fires.
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Trace amounts of the chemicals known as "PFAS" have been found in four more water wells in Madison, bringing the total number of wells having the chemicals up to 10 out of the 19 wells tested so far.
As part of FAA required training, the Wisconsin National Guard would train with this foam at the airport burn pits. The FAA also required the National Guard and all the other airport fire departments to check the functioning of their equipment twice a year, which involved test spraying the foam.
In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency issued provisional health advisories for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. Then, in 2016, the EPA established lifetime health advisory for the compounds at 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. These advisories set off a series of changes on how the Air Force, including the National Guard, approaches firefighting responsibilities while maintaining FAA certification.
The Wisconsin National Guard stopped using the foam in its vehicles at the Dane County Regional Airport in 2016. They now use a less toxic substance that meets FAA requirements. The National Guard no longer trains with foam, and it uses a closed testing system that doesn’t release any foam.
Now state toxicologists are buried in contaminants that need evaluation for standards that would protect drinking water.
The only scenario at the local airport that would allow for the release of the new firefighting foam is during an aircraft emergency response.
It’s important to understand why and how PFAS was introduced in the past and the positive changes the Wisconsin National Guard has made to continue to provide FAA-compliant, life-saving firefighting services for commercial and military aircraft at the airport. But all stakeholders should continue to work with federal, state and local officials to help ensure local residents and the men and women of the 115th Fighter Wing — who also got their water from the now closed Well 15 — have safe drinking water.