PFAS are a family of “forever chemicals,” that don’t break down naturally in the local environment. They’re thought to be carcinogenic, and cause other health issues like decreased fertility and development issues in children.
But the negative health effects of PFAS are still being researched. Scientists are still struggling to identify the extent of PFAS contamination after decades of using the chemical in consumer applications, and in military-industrial applications like firefighting foam.
Last night, the National Guard held an open house at Madison College’s Truax Campus, outlining the complicated process for cleaning up PFAS contamination at the site.
Finding the extent of PFAS contamination at Truax and the surrounding site is just one of the many steps in the long process of cleaning it up. Once consultants can identify the depth of the contamination, then they can work with the state, county, and city on a plan to remediate it.
“There really isn’t a good screening technology that you can take an instrument in your hand, hold it out, and sniff it. So you have to bring a lab out,” says Bill Myer, Environmental Restoration Program Manager for the National Guard, and manager of remedial investigations across several states.
According to Myer, at least 74 other Air National Guard bases have identified PFAS contamination. And Truax is just one of twelve sites across the nation to currently get National Guard funding for remedial investigation – a process of identifying the extent of contamination. Myer says that compared to other bases, Truax is ahead of the curve.
Captain Leslie Westmont is the chief of Public Affairs of the 115th Fighter Wing at Truax Field. She says that Madison was chosen to get the funding through a complex tool to measure risk.
“The Air Force uses data from the Relative Risk Site Evaluation (RRSE) to prioritize sites throughout the Airforce, with a worst-first mentality. So wherever the contamination is the worst, is the site they are going to address first with funding. They did the RRSE at Truax Field and Bill Myer talked about the results of Truax Field, which reflected a high rating, which is why Truax Field was selected and awarded a contract for a remedial investigation,” Westmont says.
Environmental contractor EA Engineering, Science, and Technology is slated to begin remedial investigation at Truax Field will begin sometime this spring. This process involves identifying exactly where the problem areas are in the soil and groundwater – and if the contamination is shifting.
This data collection will lay the groundwork for the next step in the process: where and how to clean the PFAS chemicals. A final report on the remedial investigation is expected sometime in 2023. But because this work will be done through government contractors, and funding will be required at every step along the way, results from this investigation could take years to even decades to be seen.
Also unveiled, in part, at last night’s meeting: a local experiment from private industry to attempt to mitigate PFAS. Officials have signed off on a study from Verona-based contractor Orin Technologies, which says it may have found a way to partially remediate PFAS at Truax airfield.
At the core of the study is BAM – that’s bioavailable absorbent media – which could trap PFAS chemicals in its slurry. Once trapped, microbes harvested from Truax and cultivated in the lab could break down the chemicals.
But officials say the pilot study began just three weeks ago, and will take about another year to complete. That means results of their study will come just before the remedial investigation run by National Guard contractors is complete.
Lieutenant Colonel Dan Statz, who works with the 115th Fighter Wing, says they are anxious to try different methods to deal with the issue as soon as possible, but cautions that they’re early in the process.
“We have done this pilot study in an about 1600 square foot area down to a depth of about 25 feet, and one at what is called a probable release area at Dane County Regional Airport. We’ve seen some really successful results in just three weeks of the study. We’ve seen anywhere from 50-90% reduction of the PFAS samples taken at some of the wells. Now this is a one-year study, we certainly don’t want to grab a technology that hasn’t been completely proven, which is the purpose of this pilot study. But it has shown very positive results,” Statz says.
But not everyone is on board with this private study. Michael Farin is a chemical engineer, and a member of Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin, a group fighting the beddown of F-35 fighter jets in 20-23. He has questions about this study – and is skeptical that a prior, 2021 experiment using BAM showed much promise for removing PFAS from the environment.
Larry Kinsman, founder of Orin Technologies, says he’s been working on BAM privately for years, and has been conservative in saying what BAM can do.
Members of Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin were present at last night’s sparsely-attended hearing — even though the group objected to an in-person hearing in the face of surging rates of COVID-19. In the lead up to the hearing, members of the activist group had pushed for the postponement of the open house.
“Today was announced to be the all-time record for hospitalization. …I really feel like they’ve been taking their time the whole time in this process, and they could wait a little longer until they could do a real community engagement program without people being scared to leave their houses,” says Tom Boswell, a member of Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy: Chali Pittman / WORT News
Editor’s note: The broadcast version of this story misidentified the abbreviation for BAM. This story has also been corrected to clarify the difference between the ongoing pilot study using BAM, and a experiment conducted in 2021 using BAM, both conducted by Orin Technologies in the same area.