Private wells in North Bennington continue to be tested for the potentially harmful chemical PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a contaminant now believed to have originated with the closed Chemfab manufacturing plant.
But state environmental officials are also looking at other sites where the chemical may turn up, including places that regularly use fire fighting foam.
Firefighters in Vermont don’t use foam all that often. It’s expensive, for one thing, and many say there’s little call for it unless you have a plane crash or gas or chemical spill.
But at the Vermont Fire Academy in Pittsford, and at Vermont’s Air National Guard base in South Burlington, foam flame retardants are regularly used for training and have been for years.
Jim Litevich is chief fire service training officer at Vermont’s Fire Academy, a job he’s held since 2001.
Walking across a dirt road from the academy offices, Litevich stops to point out the spot where they typically practice working with foam.
“You can see it’s a 100-by-50-foot concrete pad. We have car fire props, we have a dumpster fire prop,” Litevich says.
He says they train with foam about five times a year and go through 100 to 150 gallons of it annually.
Standing on the large concrete training pad, Litevich points to a long central drain that he says channels most of the water and foam residue into a large underground storage tank for reuse.
“The type of foam we use now is called training foam," he says. "It simulates what an actual foam does and also is biodegradable. So we like that aspect of it."
Firefighting foams have been around for more than 100 years. But the technology took a major leap forward in the late 1960s, when fluorosurfactants became a key new ingredient.
Chemical companies developed different processes to produce the synthetic compound. Some of those processes proved to be more hazardous than others and were discontinued.
More recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has shown that some foams still being used have the potential to break down into harmful perfluorooctanoic acid, the same chemical that’s turning up in North Bennington.
Alyssa Schuren, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, says because the Fire Academy has been using foam for decades, it’s important to test there.
“When it comes to firefighting foam, we actually don’t know if PFOA would have been used in that foam — some foams have it and some don’t," Schuren says. "And so we have reached out to the Firefighting Academy to work with them to pull some samples there. But really this is a proactive step and we have no reason to believe there’s a concern there at this time.”
Richard Spiese is a hazardous waste site specialist and project manager with the Department of Environmental Conservation.
He says the National Guard has already set up a schedule to begin testing its facility in South Burlington possibly this summer — part of a nationwide effort to address cleanup efforts at bases across the country.
Capt. Dyana Allen, a spokeswoman for the Vermont National Guard, said in an email, "The Vermont Air National Guard is currently working with state agencies to schedule any testing to evaluate conditions for moving forward. The Vermont National Guard believes that the safety of airmen, soldiers and civilians is paramount."
Spiese and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren say it is hard to say how high fire fighting foams will rank among risks for PFOA, but both say it is important for the state to look into it.
“As you can imagine, we’re early in a broader conversation about PFOA,” says Schuren. “We are still in an immediate response mode around North Bennington, and we are thinking about any statewide impact on a parallel track. And the use of foam in the ways that we’re talking about today are some of the first things we’re looking at to start some proactive sampling. And those conversations are just beginning.”
Jim Litevich says training with foam has been done at the academy since the 1970s and it’s hard to know whether any of the types they’ve used could prove to be harmful in some way.
“At the time, we had no idea how or what sort of potential chemicals in there would create problems in the future. I look at it now and it is something we need to be concerned with," says Litevich.
But, he adds, "I also think it’s a product of unintended consequences, we're trying to get the best product in the hands of firefighters to safely suppress flammable liquids and vapor fires."
But in the end, Litevich says, "We want to do the right thing and make sure we use the safest materials out there.”
Because the North Bennington situation is taking so much of the state’s resources, environmental officials were not able to say when the testing would begin in Pittsford at the State Fire Academy.
Update, 9am 3/16/16 This story has been updated to include a statement from the Vermont National Guard.