For years, local officials have weighed the best way to address PFAS contamination stemming from the Dane County airport. Yesterday, Dane County’s airport commission held a public hearing for an update on that complicated process.
PFAS are a family of man-made chemicals that are notoriously difficult to purge from groundwater. The so-called “forever chemicals” have been linked to a number of adverse health effects.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, all of Madison’s area lakes have tested positive for elevated levels of PFAS.
A significant amount of that contamination likely traces back to the Dane County Airport and Truax Airfield. For decades, the Wisconsin Air National Guard, which operates out of Truax, and airport authorities used PFAS-laden firefighting foam during training exercises. That foam eventually settled into surrounding soil and nearby Starkweather Creek.
Dane County Airport Director Kim Jones says airport authorities still keep small amounts of PFAS-containing firefighting foam on site, but it’s only used in case of emergencies.
Says Jones: “The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that requirement. It is not an issue of the Guard or the military, it is a requirement. And the reason for that requirement is entirely based on safety — and the need to be able to put out the first quickly.”
In 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources placed the burden of addressing the issue on the City of Madison, Dane County and the Air National Guard.
Jones says that the issue of financing the clean-up is ongoing.
“The DNR designated essentially three responsible parties for the PFAS contamination here. The cost of that will be shared by those parties in appropriate amounts,” she says.
Despite the known prevalence of PFAS in Dane County’s waters, Dane County assistant corporation counsel Amy Tutwiler says testing in the area surrounding the airport is also ongoing. That testing needs to wrap up before authorities can move on to long-term, large-scale clean-up efforts.
“The process takes time,” Tutwiler says. “It takes time to move from getting a sufficient amount of data to understanding the nature and extent of the contamination including defining the boundaries of the contamination before the process is reasonably ready to move to planning a remediation solution.”
In the meantime, local officials are considering several potential solutions to clean up PFAS near the airport.
One method involves a material known as “bioavailable absorbent media,” or BAM. The organic, carbon-based material is a product of environmental tech company Orin Technologies.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the process is still in the experimental phase, and the DNR has raised objections over BAM’s efficacy. But Tutwiler expressed confidence in BAM’s ability to address future contamination.
“In the lab, the technology has been very, very promising. It has done an effective job of capturing PFAS. The challenge becomes, using it in the field, there’s a number of variables that have to be figured out as we go,” Tutwiler says.
The concern over how to clean up PFAS around the airport comes as the area faces two large projects that threaten to disturb soil containing PFAS.
The Dane County Airport is embarking on an $85 million expansion of its south terminal. And the Wisconsin National Guard is constructing a flight simulator at Truax Airfield, as F-35 fighter jets are slated to arrive in 2023, despite years-long community opposition and lawsuits against the project.
The hearing also comes weeks after the airport commission voted against a proposal that would have given the Dane County board more oversight of PFAS clean-up.
PHOTO: Chali Pittman / WORT News