At SLO airport, congressman announces bills to curb pollution from toxic firefighting foam

Central Coast Congressman Salud Carbajal is set to introduce two new bills on Friday that aim to help airports transition away from the use of toxic firefighting foams that have polluted drinking water sources.

Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, announced the legislation Wednesday during a news conference at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, which itself has been the site of pollution from so-called “forever chemicals” that fouled nearby wells.

Aqueous film forming foam sprayed from fire trucks to train for potential airplane crashes since at least the 1970s has caused toxic soil and groundwater pollution across the United States.

The foam contains chemicals known as per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, which have been linked to a variety of human health issues.

“As has, unfortunately, sometimes been the case in history, the steps taken to tackle one problem have created new, unforeseen ones later down the road,” Carbajal said at the news conference. “That is the case here, where the federal government stepped in and told airports that the best way to combat potential fires would be using foams with PFAS chemicals ... which we now know have been linked to a wide range of health hazards, including cancer and developmental harm.”

As of October 2021, airports are no longer required to use firefighting foams that contain PFAS. However, the FAA has not yet provided airports with an approved fluorine-free alternative.

In July, the SLO County airport became the first in California to come to a cleanup agreement to potentially remediate the PFAS pollution that has contaminated nearby residents’ wells for decades.

The cleanup agreement is with Cal Fire — which used the firefighting foam — and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, who will oversee the pollution cleanup efforts.

The agreement was voluntary because Cal Fire and the county threatened legal action should they be ordered to clean up the pollution. They argued the Federal Aviation Administration could be found liable for causing the pollution because it mandated the use of the toxic firefighting foam to be used at airports.

“The county of San Luis Obispo, Cal Fire, water board and airport staff have all worked diligently to deliver this voluntary settlement agreement and address the critical water needs of the impacted residents within the area and within the PFAS-impacted wells in the absence of state and federal regulations,” said Jane Gray, chair of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, during Wednesday’s press conference.

Carbajal said the bills he’s expected to introduce into the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday are the result of seeing the harmful impacts PFAS-containing firefighting foam has had on communities such as San Luis Obispo.

“Because these were federally required foams at the root of this problem, I believe it’s important that the federal government support our airports and our communities to deal with the effects of that policy,” he said Wednesday.

The bill are expected to have bipartisan support, Carbajal noted.

What Carbajal’s PFAS bills would do

The first of Carbajal’s bills aims to address some of these issues by mandating the FAA create a plan to transition airports to fluorine-free firefighting foam, which doesn’t contain PFAS.

The Save Our Airports Act, or SOAR Act, would require the FAA to submit a progress report on its creation of the transition plan to Congress no later than 180 days after the bill is enacted. Every 180 days thereafter, the FAA must submit a follow-up progress report until it determines the plan is complete.

The plan must include guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on acceptable uses of the fluorine-free firefighting foam. It must also give best practices for decontamination of existing aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicles, systems and other equipment used to spray the PFAS-containing foam.

The second bill — the Pollution-Free Aviation Sites Act, or PFAS Act — would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a grant program to reimburse airports for costs associated with transitioning to fluorine-free firefighting foam.

Should the act pass, up to $2 million could be granted to individual airports for costs including purchasing fluorine-free foam, cleaning airport equipment that used PFAS-containing foam and purchasing equipment needed to disperse the fluorine-free foam.

Courtney Johnson, director of airports for San Luis Obispo County, said the grants would be incredibly helpful.

“We appreciate any amount, but it still might not be enough,” Johnson said during the Wednesday news conference.

In June, the county used grant funds to purchase a new firefighting truck equipped to disperse PFAS-containing firefighting foam for $1.4 million, she said. The airport must have two of those trucks on hand at all times to meet FAA requirements, Johnson added.

“In addition to that, we’re hearing an estimate of about $350,000 from other airports to clean out equipment,” she said. “And that’s only a 98% success rate to remediate PFAS.”

Johnson noted that while the $2 million may go further for smaller airports such as SLO County’s, larger airports will likely need to spend more to transition away from PFAS-containing firefighting foam.