By Ry Rivard
The state this week labeled the Adirondack Regional Airport, a town-owned airfield near Saranac Lake, a hazardous waste site.
Like hundreds of other airports across the country, Adirondack Regional over the years sprayed firefighting foam that contains chemicals now known to cause cancer and other health problems. These persistent “forever chemicals,” known as PFAS, linger in the soil and water.
Tests also found the chemicals in a nearby mobile home park, the Adirondack Airport Community.
The state added the airport to its “superfund” hazard list this week. The state Department of Environmental Conservation will now do more to investigate the “nature and extent of contamination” at the site and figure out options to clean up the damage, but officials have known about problems there for several years. Last year, state Attorney General Letitia James cited problems at the airport in a federal lawsuit against the makers of PFAS and firefighting foam.
Day-to-day operations remain unaffected, Airport Manager Corey Hurwitch said. The Town of Harrietstown owns and operates the airport.
The state has done a series of tests at the airport in the past several years. The most dramatic result came from a test well drilled at the end of a row of hangars. There, samples of groundwater showed 28,181 parts PFAS per trillion parts water. Anything above 500 would have been eye-catching in such a sample.
Other tests showed PFAS in existing drinking water supplies. That already has prompted some action and warnings to protect public health.
When the airport learned that water from a bathroom in a hangar had elevated levels of PFAS, warning signs went up and people stopped drinking the hangar’s water, Hurwitch said.
Lower but still elevated levels of the chemical were also found at the Adirondack Airport Community, which is not affiliated with the airport. The community, just down a road from the airport entrance, has about 30 mobile homes.
In November 2016 and again in January 2017, the state Department of Health sampled the mobile home park’s wells. Each time, they found between 9 and 14 parts PFAS per trillion parts water — enough to raise concern for people who rely on the water each day, but not enough to trigger major regulatory action.
Erin Silk, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said the Adirondack Airport Community water system “was informed of the sampling results” in letters the department sent to its long-time owner, Elwin Hall, in early 2017. The letters say the chemicals were found in the mobile home park’s wells but at levels still considered “acceptable.” Health officials did not require any further action, though they recommended residents be told of the results. The department said customers were notified in annual water quality reports.
This summer, Hall sold the park, now known as Birch Park, to a real estate group in Lake Placid. In an interview Thursday morning, he said he didn’t recall the PFAS issue.
One of the new owners, Brandon Montag, said he hadn’t heard from the state about the PFAS levels, even though he met with health department officials earlier this week during an inspection of the water system and a PFAS test is planned for next week.
“The communication from the state isn’t always the greatest,” he said.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said it recently sent more letters to property owners near the airport and offered to sample their water. The state has already sampled nearby private supplies, in addition to the mobile home park and the airport itself.
“If any contamination potentially affecting public health exists, New York State would immediately act to provide clean water to impacted residents and communities, aggressively pursue polluters, and advance a cleanup plan,” the DEC said in a statement.
Statewide, there are about 400 similarly hazardous superfund sites, including a few small airports. The state’s superfund program is modeled on a federal program, which cleans up the most toxic sites in the country. Federal superfund projects include the infamous Love Canal and GE’s contamination of the Hudson River. By contrast, many of the state superfund sites are dry cleaners and smaller industrial hazards.
Like other airports, Adirondack Regional had to routinely test its firefighting system, so even airports that haven’t had fires sprayed foam.
After the dangers of this foam became clear, Hurwitch said the airport paid extra for a new fire truck that can be tested without spreading foam.
Exposure to PFAS — a group of chemicals found in nonstick pans, among other things — can cause cancer and harm the immune system, liver and babies.
A patchwork of regulations and guidelines governs the chemical. The federal government, which has generally taken a laidback approach, says water with 70 parts of PFAS per trillion parts water is a danger to human health.
New York recently adopted a much stricter limit of 10 parts per trillion for PFAS. The acronym stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” and is actually a group of different related chemicals. In New York, the limit applies to individual chemicals in that group — so a water supply could have several different kinds of PFAS that add up to more than 10 parts per trillion but still be considered safe. That’s how the mobile home park could have 14 parts of PFAS per trillion but not violate any current water quality standards.
Advocacy groups, like the Environmental Working Group, argue even 1 part per trillion is unsafe and have data showing 200 million Americans could be drinking at least that much of the chemical each day.