Foam legacy

A firefighting substance used at the Santa Maria Public Airport decades ago contaminated its water, soil

File courtesy photo by Chris Hastert
ONGOING INVESTIGATION: The California State Water Resources Control Board discovered low levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—harmful chemicals that can cause cancer in high concentrations—at the Santa Maria Public Airport. The state agency is still investigating who is responsible for the substances and figuring out how to clean it up.

Cleaning chemicals used decades ago seeped into the soil and groundwater at airports across the state, including Santa Maria’s, Santa Barbara County 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson told the Sun.

“We know more than we did 40 years ago. I don’t think anyone intentionally polluted our groundwater, but there is a chemical down in the wells. This is a 50- to 60-year-old pollution,” Nelson said. 

Known as “forever chemicals,” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used since the 1940s as components in industrial cleaners, firefighting foams, nonstick surfaces, fabric softeners, and for water resistance, according to officials with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Long-term human exposure to these chemicals can cause changes in thyroid function, decreased vaccine response in children, and an increased risk for cancer.

“There are thousands of individual PFAS, each with unique chemical and physical properties,” water board officials wrote in an emailed statement to the Sun. “Big picture: The U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] developed and released a roadmap that sets timelines by which EPA plans to take specific actions and commits to bolder new policies to safeguard public health, protect the environment, and hold polluters accountable.” 

In 2012, the U.S. EPA began enforcing an amendment to the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act that requires the EPA to issue a new list of no more than 30 unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems, according to a California State Water Resources Control Board PFAS Timeline. As part of that, in 2019, the Santa Maria Regional Airport was one of 30 California airports issued an order to investigate aqueous film forming foam (AFFF)—a firefighting foam with active PFAS ingredients. It was often used at the airport for firefighter or military training between the 1950s and 1970s, water board officials said. 

While preliminary soil and groundwater sampling do show low levels of PFAS, the Santa Maria site investigation is still pending, and regulatory agencies are trying to figure out who is responsible for the contamination and should pay for the cleanup. The airport has changed hands several times over the decades, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the county to the city before becoming its own entity.

“We don’t know at the end who pays for what, and what the cost will look like,” county Supervisor Nelson said. “We all share some responsibility; frankly I think the city and the county have the least amount of responsibility. The only reason we’re in the loop is because we owned the property. Never did the city or county pollute, I can say that with certainty, but because of the way the law is set up, we’re a party.” 

click to enlarge Foam legacy
File courtesy photo by Chris Hastert
AIRPORT TROUBLES: Chemicals found in a firefighting foam that was routinely used in military and firefighter trainings at the Santa Maria Public Airport are now part of a state water board investigation.

Martin Pehl, the Santa Maria Public Airport’s general manager, told the Sun in a voicemail that the airport shouldn’t be included as a discharger, and cleanup costs should fall onto the county’s or city’s shoulders. 

“We haven’t owned the property, we only owned the property for four years and that was from ’64 to ’68. We had no knowledge of any discharge having occurred, the water board didn’t even exist, laws governing those kinds of discharges didn’t exist,” Pehl said. 

According to the Santa Maria Public Airport District’s website, in March 1964, ownership transferred from city/county dual ownership/management to the district, which still runs it to this day.

Regional Water Quality Control Board officials told the Sun that the Santa Maria Public Airport submitted a report that said the airport was built by the U.S. Army for military operations during World War II, and in 1947 the city acquired the land for commercial flight operations. 

“The Santa Maria Airport District is unable to provide accurate documentation of when AFFF was originally stored at the site, but the first military specification that set out requirements for AFFF was put in place in 1969,” water board officials said. “Based on the provided information, the exact date in which AFFF, a source of PFAS, was released to the environment is uncertain.” 

Lars Seifert, the Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services director, said that the airport district conducted extraction and groundwater sampling between 2021 and 2023 following the investigative order focusing on the runway—the area where the foam was used. 

“It’s pretty isolated to the runway areas in Santa Maria. Through the testing in the public drinking water wells, we have a good handle that PFAS is not getting into the groundwater and getting to a point where it’s a risk to humans,” Seifert said. “PFAS is not harmful if they are just sitting there. There has to be a pathway or exposure risk; if they get into the groundwater or drinking water that’s an exposure risk to humans.” 

Most water samples for chemical exposure are in parts per million, and PFAS is measured in parts per trillion—a conservative measure from the EPA because the understanding of the substances is relatively new. Seifert added that at this point, there haven’t been detections that would require notifications for people receiving water from wells near the airport.

“If they are in shallow soils, oftentimes [the water board would] recommend removal of the soils and properly dispose of them. If they get into shallow, perched water that’s there, sometimes there’s filtration technology that can pump and filter the chemicals out, but that’s part of the assessment when they do the testing and notification,” Seifert said. 

The airport is still in its assessment phase and the investigation is still ongoing; the water board will have to get a better handle on PFAS locations, if they are safe in place, or if they need to plan for soil removal, he said. 

“Other sites that we oversee, the cleanup and assessment of PFAS take several years because you have to go in to install monitoring wells, take soil samples, evaluate other areas—it’s a process,” Seifert said. 

While PFAS have been present for years, the technology that could detect the chemicals at lower concentrations needed to be developed and more research needed to take place in order to understand their impact on humans, said Jason Johnston, supervising environmental health specialist at the Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services Department.

“The U.S. EPA has been doing a lot of evaluation of PFAS chemicals and trying to establish at what level they might be harmful,” Johnston said. “Obviously, they are still concerned about setting limits … and obviously, evaluating our exposure to them sooner rather than later is going to be beneficial for long-term human health.” 

Even if it’s not a risk for Santa Marians at the moment, these investigations give people “confidence in the safety of the drinking water” Seifert added. 

“We live in an environment in which we are surrounded by products and chemicals. It’s good for people to be aware of what they are eating, drinking, and what they are exposed to,” Seifert said. “I think it gives people the power to make choices and reduce their risk if they are concerned.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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