The state Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, announced today that they are beginning a program to collect PFAS-laden firefighting foam from fire departments across the state for safe disposal.
Otherwise known as “forever chemicals” due to how long it takes for them to break down naturally, PFAS has been found in a variety of consumer products like non-stick Teflon, and in industrial products, like firefighting foam.
North Shore Environmental Construction, a Wisconsin-based environmental cleanup and management company, will lead the disposal efforts. The company expects to collect and dispose of at least 25,000 gallons of the foam waste throughout the state.
David Johnson is the executive vice president of North Shore. He says that disposing of the foam isn’t an easy task. The best known way to currently dispose of the foam is to send it to a chemical waste landfill in Alabama.
“It’s a completely self contained landfill. What they do is basically solidify it into a concrete block. Then they put the block into the landfill, where it remains until the future, (when) we learn new developments to get rid of these materials,” Johnson says.
These solidified blocks are much less likely to seep into the groundwater, and even if they do, the landfill has its own water treatment plant on site to treat the water.
This is crucial, because once PFAS is released into the environment, it’s extremely difficult to clean up.
The state DNR, along with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protections, were provided funding for the program in the 2021-2023 state budget. North Shore was selected as the contractor for the program in September of this year.
While state law does ban the use of the PFAS-containing foam except during emergencies or testing, over 60 county fire departments across Wisconsin still have the foam. While these departments have mostly switched over to PFAS-free firefighting foam, it still sits unused in firehouses across the state, waiting to be disposed of.
Mike Stanley is President of the State Fire Chiefs Association, a network of fire chiefs from across Wisconsin. Stanley says, while there are very few applications for the foam allowed under state law, fire departments still keep it around in case of emergencies.
“Periodically, thankfully not too often, we do get into that life-saving situation where you’re going to save somebody’s life by spraying that foam. The most common example I can think of is somebody that is pinned or trapped in a vehicle that’s on fire. Using it in that very narrow application is what it’s still for, but not using it for anything other than that. No training, no spraying around just in case, those days are long gone,” Stanley says.
Firefighting foam used by many departments, including the Madison Fire Department, now no longer contains PFAS. But PFAS-containing foam is still used at airports. That’s because FAA regulations require airport operators to use foams that contain PFAS.
David Johnson says that this is because, unfortunately, the PFAS foam is the most effective at putting out fires.
“PFAS firefighting foam is a fairly common foam, for Class B fires, or for oil substances. What it does is it creates a film coating over the oil to keep the oil from igniting. Most municipalities in Wisconsin have it, it’s a fairly common compound that fire departments would use,” Johnson says.
The new collection program kicked off today in Appleton, where David Johnson of North Shore says they’ve already collected around 195 5-gallon buckets and around 12 55-gallon drums of the foam from the Fox Valley area.
But if the PFAS-laden foam has been known to be a problem for years, why begin collecting and disposing of the foam now? Mike Stanley says the answer boils down to funding.
“We certainly didn’t want to make an unfunded mandate for the fire departments, so many in the state are doing brat frys and pancake breakfasts just to buy a couple new helmets and sets of boots. For that to happen, and to identify just what the quantity was out there, go through the RFP process for the DNR to identify a suitable and qualified vendor to take it up, that process took a little time,” Stanley says.
And while it is an opt-in program, Stanley says he doesn’t think many fire departments are going to shy away from the program.
“The departments want to do the right thing. They’re eager to accurately or properly dispose of this. They’ve been anxiously waiting for this opportunity. I don’t think it’s going to be a door-to-door ‘give us your PFAS,’ ‘no you can’t have mine’ type of scenario. The departments want to be rid of it, and want it to be disposed of properly, so they are absolutely chomping at the bit for this program to get started so they can take advantage of this opportunity,” Stanley says.
The program is expected to run at least for the next few months. Fire departments that want to dispose of their firefighting foam should contact North Shore Environmental Construction.
Photo courtesy: Amir Mohammad / UNSPLASH