Toxic Firefighting Foams A Challenge To Replace Quickly

Sep 7, 2021

Fire departments across Massachusetts face a "daunting" task in replacing the foams they use to fight fires caused by fuels or other flammable liquids, one chief told a task force mulling ways the state can address contamination by a class of chemicals known as PFAS.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of long-lasting, man-made chemicals used for decades in consumer products like non-stick coating and in certain firefighting foams.

Last year's state budget created the PFAS Interagency Task Force, led by House Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan and Sen. Julian Cyr, to study PFAS contamination, exposure pathways and mitigation strategies. Its recommendations to the Legislature are due by Dec. 31.

Probing issues around where PFAS contamination in Massachusetts comes from and who should bear responsibility for cleaning it up, the panel heard Tuesday from state Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey and fire chiefs Peter Burke of Hyannis and John Dearborn of Longmeadow.

Ostroskey said that as more information continues to emerge about PFAS chemicals, the Department of Fire Services has been trying to apply that information "as quickly as possible."

The department teamed up with state environmental officials on a takeback program to collect and remove old firefighting foam containing PFAS, he said, and plans a Sept. 13 seminar for fire departments about replacing a type of foam known as AFFF.

Burke said foam is "the only tool we have available for flammable liquid firefighting" and described three classes of firefighting foam — legacy or longer-chain foam, "somewhat newer" C6 or short-chain foam, and fluorine-free foams, which are "very new to market."

While previously, longer-chain foams were considered the only concern, "we now know to be concerned with anything containing fluorine," he said.

"The proposition of replacing our foam stock commonwealth-wide is daunting," Burke said. "Some departments have already made efforts to purchase short-chain foams thinking they were better, and again, in reality, we know that nearly all of the firefighting foam needs to be replaced, needs to be removed from service, the storage tanks cleaned or remediated, and we have to purchase replacement fluorine-free foam and potentially new equipment to apply it."

While departments would like to "immediately stop" the use of foam and replace it with environmentally friendly alternatives, doing so would be "impossible operationally" and would require significant financial support, Burke said.

As an example of one instance where foam needed to be deployed, Burke cited a 2007 gasoline tank rollover in Everett that led to 21 cars and multiple buildings catching fire in a crowded neighborhood, from which 145 people needed to evacuate.

Dearborn, the Longmeadow chief, recounted an incident in Chicopee a few years ago when foam was used after a tanker ignited.

"In this case, that was the only way to protect critical infrastructure," he said. "There's been discussion about decision-making, to just let fires burn out, and really that is an on-scene decision that has to be made almost immediate[ly]. The PFAS issue has made our risk assessment and our decision-making much more complicated."

Attorney Robert Bilott, a partner in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky offices of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, who has represented clients affected by PFAS, made the case to the task force that the companies who developed the chemicals should be the ones responsible for the costs of addressing contamination.

"These fire departments, the airports, the state of Massachusetts -- none of the taxpayers here should have to pay this," he said. "We know who the responsible parties are. They should be paying for it."