Environmental Due Diligence

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PFAS and AFFF: Implications for Environmental Due Diligence at Airport Properties

July 8, 2024 5 mins

Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) is a firefighting foam commonly used to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as those caused by oil, gasoline, or jet fuel. It is particularly useful for fire suppression systems at airports, on ships, and oil and gas facilities. Despite its effectiveness, experts believe that the use of AFFF could pose significant environmental and health concerns due high concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), two of which were recently designated as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

If you’ve seen the recent headlines about PFAS risk and potential health effects, then you’re aware that these risks are linked to the common use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam, also known as AFFF. The standard practice of using AFFF to extinguish fires at airports makes it critical for environmental professionals who conduct environmental site assessments (ESAs) at properties on or around airports to consider PFAS risks as part of their scope of work. Here’s a look at what the latest developments mean to you.

PFAS Considerations on Phase I ESAs on and Around Airports

Under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule, as of July 8, 2024, Phase I ESAs conducted for the purpose of CERCLA liability protection must now consider PFAS as a hazardous substance when identifying Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs). Leading environmental expert Georgeanna Nugent of McFarland-Johnson, whom LightBox interviewed in a previous PFAS Due Diligence webinar, has noted that the USEPA’s recent designation of PFAS as a hazardous substance under CERCLA has implications for due diligence assessments conducted on and around airport properties. According to Nugent, due diligence scoping at aviation facilities should therefore include several critical steps:

  1. Identify historic and current locations of AFFF usage and storage.
  2. Evaluate current and former military usage.
  3. Assess potential receptor locations and determine the direction of groundwater and surface water flow.
  4. Review existing environmental reports.
  5. Engage legal counsel as needed to navigate the complexities of PFAS-related liabilities.

“These steps ensure a comprehensive and PFAS-focused approach to environmental due diligence, which will now affect financing options, tenant interest, and development costs associated with airport projects,” Nugent noted. She further emphasized that “Properties with known PFAS impacts, like airports that have used AFFF for emergency responses, must anticipate additional scrutiny and regulatory obligations, impacting project timelines and overall development costs.”

Challenges in Identifying Historical AFFF Use

Identifying the historical use of AFFF is particularly challenging due to the multitude of variables involved. Historical records, interviews, emergency response records, and historical storage and maintenance locations all contribute to complexity in reviewing potential contamination sites. These include aircraft incident locations, hangars, fuel and chemical storage areas, infrastructure such as underground utility conduits, fire suppression systems, and training locations. As such, Nugent emphasized the “variability in tenant usage over time and the presence of secondary containment systems further complicate efforts to pinpoint historical AFFF usage accurately.”

Despite these challenges, airports will continue to develop properties both airside and landside, attracting tenants reliant on aviation service and associated infrastructure. The level of risk undertaken by new owners and tenants will be balanced against potential health and safety concerns. For example, thorough verification of previous tenant operations and scrutiny of the drinking water source for existing buildings on potentially PFAS-impacted properties “will be essential,” Nugent pointed out.

Phasing Out AFFF

The USEPA’s CERCLA PFAS enforcement discretion and settlement policy memo, published as a rule on April 19, 2024, states that the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) does not plan to take legal action against certain entities, including airports, for contamination involving PFAS, unless there are fair and just reasons to do so. Despite this, Nugent believes that airports may be mandated to transition to non-PFAS foam in the future.

In fact, according to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024, a new DOT (Department of Transportation) grant program will be established for airports to dispose of PFAS-containing products and purchase fluorine-free firefighting alternatives. The FAA has requested an estimated $350 million for this transition.

Some higher-risk aviation operations are taking action to comply before being mandated. In April 2024, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center reported that the Department of the Air Force installation fire departments are transitioning their fire and emergency response vehicles to a fluorine-free foam formulation, as part of a Department of Defense initiative to remove PFAS from firefighting operations. The Air Force has committed $8.55 million to purchase more than 270,000 gallons of the new fluorine-free foam, or F3.

Transitioning to F3 foam, a fluorine-free alternative, is complex. It involves understanding the differences between AFFF and F3 foam, avoiding additional contamination, and following State and Federal guidelines. To date, only three airports have fully transitioned to F3 foam. Airport sponsors should rely on experienced consultants in PFAS management and develop a PFAS Management, Mitigation, and Remediation (MMR) Plan to ensure a safe transition.

Growing Universe of PFAS Data

Many states are also taking proactive measures to respond to PFAS risk at airport properties. The more states that test and collect data creates more records that help environmental professionals assess PFAS risk.

In 2016, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) sent surveys to various facilities, including airports, to gather data on PFAS usage. Based on the survey results, New York became the first state to classify PFAS as a hazardous substance.

In Pennsylvania, a study conducted in 2019 by the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water focused on PFAS contamination at 14 CFR Part 139-permitted airports. This study involved developing a foam survey to identify the location of PFAS-containing foams and creating a comprehensive database. Pennsylvania’s proactive approach included making water sampling results publicly available online, highlighting its commitment to transparency and public health. As more states follow suit, the universe of both federal and state databases of properties with known or potential PFAS risk will expand.

For further insights and detailed discussions, LightBox just released a new podcast “What’s Next for PFAS and CERCLA?” Visit our PFAS resource center as we update more insights on this timely topic.

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