States across the U.S. are deciding to dispose of nearly 1 million gallons of toxic firefighting foam outside their borders, opting to send the waste to other states to be incinerated or dumped in a landfill.
This aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, contains chemicals that may cause cancer, liver tissue damage, and other adverse health effects. The chemicals are part of a group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that have been popping up in drinking water systems across the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency and New York are still researching the potential health risks of incinerating the chemicals. Emerging data shows that incineration may not be completely destroying the chemicals and instead exposing the public to potential health risks.
But the chemicals in drinking water are another risk. The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS in drinking water, but some states have set their own limits. Many of them are cracking down on one potential source of the chemicals by collecting buckets and drums of the foam from fire departments, airports, and other facilities that use it to extinguish fuel fires.
Now states that collected AFFF to keep it out of their water are looking for ways to get it off their hands.
The majority of states coordinating disposal of AFFF—which include New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Jersey—did so between 2017 and this year, collecting more than 932,500 gallons, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis.
Most of these states don’t have the appropriate incinerator facilities to handle the foam within their borders. New York has an incinerator that burned waste from other states. But New York opted to send its own AFFF out of state.
Sending the waste to other states for disposal just adds to the number of potential sources of PFAS, increasing the likelihood that people will be exposed to the chemicals, said Emily Lamond, member of Cole Schotz PC in Hackensack, N.J.
New York Efforts
New York state collected about 42,000 gallons of foam containing PFAS between October 2017 and February 2020, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“All the foam was properly disposed by qualified contractors at permitted facilities located outside of [New York state],” according to the department. The department didn’t indicate where those facilities were located.
The collection, proper storage, and disposal of the foam can be costly. New York state allocated $700,000 for its removal and disposal from 2017 to 2020, and is in the process of suing manufacturers of the foam to recoup costs, the state environment department said.
Concerns over the burning of AFFF in the small upstate New York community of Cohoes has drawn national attention and sparked a study of potential health hazards.
About 2.5 million pounds of waste contaminated with the chemicals were shipped from more than two dozen states to an incinerator in Cohoes owned by Norlite LLC, an affiliate of Tradebe Environmental Services LLC. The incinerator, which is located next to a public housing complex, accepted that type of waste for two years, through the end of 2019.
The Department of Defense and Norlite mutually agreed to end the contract, and Norlite agreed with the state to stop incinerating the foam.
An EPA research team and New York state are developing performance testing protocols and conducting an analysis of disposal methods, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment about its PFAS disposal research.
Testing for the research isn’t occurring at the Norlite facility, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The department noted that New York state didn’t send any foam to the facility to be destroyed. The department solicited bids for the material’s disposal. DEC subcontractors ultimately selected subcontractors that met state procurement rules through an open, competitive process, according to the department.
Nearly 1 Million Gallons
Rhode Island collected about 2,100 gallons of AFFF, and Massachusetts collected about 18,000. Both states chose to send the foam to a commercial fuel-blending facility owned by Vexor Technology LLC in Medina, Ohio. The company blends the concentrated foam into fuel, said Ed Coletta, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The fuel was then incinerated by Covanta Holding Corp. at either its Indianapolis or Niagara, N.Y., facilities, Coletta said. Both facilities convert waste to energy.
Michigan collected more than 30,000 gallons of foam from fire departments and commercial airports. The state opted to dispose of the foam in Grand View, Idaho, where US Ecology Inc. solidified the foam before putting it into its landfill.
New Jersey planned to collect foam from around the state, but decided to postpone the effort in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Connecticut and Washington state are planning foam collection programs.
Erich R. Ebel, communications manager for a division of the Washington state Department of Ecology, said the agency is taking inventory of foam at various locations.
“We are, however, carefully studying the various options available in order to determine the most effective course of action that best protects human health and the environment,” Ebel said.
Connecticut currently lacks funding to start collecting foam, said Shannon Pociu, emerging contaminants coordinator for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The state doesn’t have any facilities that could dispose of the foam, according to the agency.
The states’ decisions reflect the “vacuum” of federal regulations for handling waste that contains PFAS, Lamond said.
PFAS chemicals have also been used to manufacture nonstick and stain-resistant coatings in clothing, fast-food wrappers, carpets, and other consumer and industrial products.
—With assistance from Paul Shukovsky and Adrianne Appel.
To see the latest updates on state-level PFAS regulations and legislation, check out Bloomberg Law’s PFAS State Activity Tracker here.