For the last several decades, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has advised and required U.S. certificated commercial service airport operators to use aircraft firefighting products that contain the “forever chemicals” per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). PFAS are subject to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health advisories and pose concerning implications for drinking water systems.
The White House and Congress have been rightfully vocal about the harmful impacts that these “forever chemicals” have on our environment. The recent Statement of Administration Policy on the House’s annual defense authorization bill even begins: “The Administration remains committed to responsibly addressing PFAS on and from military bases across the country and shares the Congress’s concern for the potential health impacts.”
So many would think there would be greater urgency and a laser focus on transitioning to PFAS-free firefighting foam at U.S. defense installations and airports, which must use the same foam as the military. Unfortunately, inaction on this important matter has not only failed to meet the rhetoric, but it has failed to meet the moment. And continued federal dithering at this critical time will unnecessarily delay the rollout of PFAS-free firefighting foams and increase their cost.
Airports led the charge in the 2018 FAA reauthorization to eliminate the long-standing FAA mandate that airports use firefighting foams containing PFAS compounds, opening the door for the use of federally approved fluorine-free foams. While the FAA did not meet the three-year statutory implementation deadline for this provision, we are beginning to see some progress. Now, after years of delay, new federal performance standards for fluorine-free foams may finally be in place early in 2023.
The federal government still has not developed and released a national transition strategy to guide the changeover to PFAS-free foams at airports and military installations. There is currently no plan to purchase and distribute the new foam, no plan to store and dispose of the old foam, no plan for how to clean and adapt existing equipment for the new foam, no plan for new firefighting tactics and training necessary to use the new foam, and no plan for remediating any soil contamination resulting from the federal mandate to use the old foam. This inaction by the federal government leaves airports in limbo as pressure continues to build to transition to PFAS-free foams, including many state laws that ban the use of PFAS foams once the FAA approves a fluorine-free alternative.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) recently introduced an amendment to the House defense bill that would have directed federal agencies to work with industry stakeholders to develop a meaningful national strategy to distribute and deploy fluorine-free foams and then fund an acquisition and storage/disposal program to assist airports in transitioning to the new foam. Imagine our surprise when the Escobar amendment was tanked over procedural objections and jurisdictional infighting, without a real attempt at finding a workable solution to this looming problem.
Enough of the delay. Now is the time for action.
While the House missed an opportunity with its defense bill, the Senate can do the right thing and address this important issue in its bill. Time is of the essence in developing a national transition plan and funding the foam replacement as a smooth transition to PFAS-free firefighting foam requires a well-coordinated process among multiple agencies and stakeholders. Congress must act quickly to direct the FAA, EPA, Department of Defense, and others to start working with industry stakeholders immediately to develop and implement a workable national transition strategy to PFAS-free firefighting foam at our nation’s airports and military installations.
Kevin M. Burke is President and CEO of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA), the trade association representing commercial service airports in the United States and Canada.