Why Airport Managers and Commissions Can No Longer “Wait and See” on PFAS Firefighting Foam

July 20, 2023
For airport managers in the United States who have been taking a “wait and see” attitude on what to do about firefighting foams containing PFAS, two recent significant trends may mean the time has finally come to act.
Guy Dalton
Guy Dalton

For airport managers in the United States who have been taking a “wait and see” attitude on what to do about firefighting foams containing PFAS, two recent significant trends may mean the time has finally come to act.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 mandates U.S. military airports remove and dispose Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF)-containing PFAS from aircraft hangar fire suppression systems and replacing them with fluorine-free foam (F3) products that meet U.S. Defense Department specifications by October 2024. On May 8, 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration published its “Aircraft Firefighting Foam Transition Plan” laying out an initial path for civilian airports to phase out PFAS-containing AFFF in favor of F3. F3 products will also likely be mandatory in many states as part of their strategies to control PFAS.

At the same time, many state-sponsored “PFAS Takeback” programs offering airports full or partial reimbursement for the cost of removing and safely disposing of PFAS-containing firefighting foams will in coming months be reaching their statutory expiration dates, exhausting available funding, or both.

With the clock ticking on both the regulatory and financing fronts, now is an optimal time for airport managers who have not yet developed and implemented a PFAS management plan to protect themselves from regulatory liability and to ensure they are not stuck at the back of the line waiting for replacement fire suppressants and technologies to become available.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a class of manufactured chemicals which have been used in many industry and consumer products, including waterproofing, non-stick, and grease-resistant coatings and treatments, since the 1940s. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asserted that certain PFAS are associated with serious health problems, including cancer and liver and kidney damage, if people experience long-term exposure to them. Many PFAS compounds are persistent in the environment.

Mixed with water to form foam, AFFF products extinguish burning fuel spilled from aircraft or fuel storage equipment by suppressing combustible vapors, lowering the temperature of the fire to reduce its spread, and creating a self-resealing film between the foam and fuel that extends the AFFF’s vapor suppression capabilities as fuel spreads across a runway, taxiway, apron, or hangar floor. The Defense Department is currently finalizing specifications for military-specification F3 products (“MILSPEC F3”) which are intended to achieve the same or close to the same fire suppression results as AFFF, without the use of PFAS.

The FAA’s May guidance document applies to Part 139 certificated airports, the 517 U.S. airports serving scheduled air carrier operations in aircraft with more than 9 passenger seats and certain unscheduled operations in larger planes. https://www.faa.gov/airports/airport_safety/part139_cert/airports-affected It advises airports how to obtain EPA guidance on acceptable environmental limits for PFAS, current best practices for cleaning and decontaminating airport fire trucks, rescue vehicles, fire-suppression systems, and other equipment used to deploy AFFF, timelines for MILSPEC F3 implementation plans, and how to train airport firefighters to use them safely and properly.

The FAA notes: “Airports will need to decide whether to transition to MILSPEC F3 or to continue using AFFF as a firefighting extinguishing agent in the immediate future. At this time, the FAA has not mandated a transition to MILSPEC F3; however, airports need to be aware of applicable state laws and emerging federal requirements, which may require a transition to MILSPEC F3.’’ As the FAA notes, “Airports may also want to transition to F3 to protect public health and manage future liability risk. Further, as foam manufacturers transition to producing MILSPEC F3, AFFF may become unavailable, which may force airports to transition sooner.’’

For all these reasons, the FAA concludes, “Airports should develop a transition team for planning and executing a transition to MILSPEC F3, which should consider both Federal and state requirements related to the handling, disposal, and cleaning of equipment contaminated with PFAS.’’

Airport managers are well-advised to seek expert guidance regarding:

· the removal and safe disposal of PFAS-containing AFFF, and

· the decontamination and/or replacement of AFFF-dispensing equipment with MILSPEC-F3-compatible vehicles and technology.

First, of course, is understanding the relevant environmental regulatory requirements in your state. PFAS regulation varies widely among the 50 states, District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. It’s important to stay up to date on whether your state has taken steps or will take steps to allow for the discharge of MILSPEC F3 foam at your airport.

Beyond that, an AFFF-to-F3 transition plan should consider:

· long-term storage or safe disposal of unused AFFF products and waste liquids generated from cleaning storage and dispensing equipment

· new regulations for storage of MILSPEC F3, such as maximum allowable temperatures

· whether removing AFFF, cleaning equipment, and selecting and installing systems to serve MILSPEC F3 is a job your airport can handle itself, or if you are best served by hiring an outside contractor

· the transition plan for the actual weeks and months during which you are replacing AFFF equipment with MILSPEC F3, identifying whether weather-enclosed indoor spaces are available to minimize the risk of rain, snow and extreme temperatures negatively affecting the transition,

and ensuring the airport remains at all times in full compliance with federal and state laws and regulations for maintaining firefighting capabilities

· complying with state laws and regulations and, where applicable, organized labor collective bargaining agreements to develop and implement a health and safety plan for all aspects of the AFFF-to-F3 transition

· securing a hazardous materials disposal specialist to be on standby during the transition in case any AFFF is released.


At the state level, regulatory standards for AFFF and the availability of programs and funding for “PFAS takeback” initiatives that relieve airports of the challenges of safely disposing of PFAS are routinely in flux. It’s always worth checking with your local PFAS-regulating authority on whether PFAS regulations have changed recently or will soon, and to find out where and how to apply for PFAS takeback funding or programs if they are available. Two resources offering more information about state-level PFAS regulation and takeback programs are: https://www.bclplaw.com/en-US/events-insights-news/pfas-update-state-regulation-of-pfas-in-firefighting-foam-and-equipment-1.html#:~:text=Take%2Dback%20Program%3A%20A%20voluntary,foam%20made%20with%20PFAS%20materials.&text=Disposal%3A%20Incineration%20of%20PFAS%20is%20prohibited. https://www.gza.com/insights/learn-more-about-pfas

Increasingly, it looks like a matter of when, not if, U.S. civilian airports will have to replace the firefighting foams they have used for decades with new, PFAS-free compounds. When this transition is complete, it will help to further protect our drinking water supplies and wildlife habitat, and the staff of our airport fire services and operations teams from any negative impacts of PFAS exposure. But it will be a complex and costly transition. Getting started today on a plan for the fluorine-free foams known as MILSPEC F3 is a prudent move for airport managers and their professional advisors and consultants.