News Jul 22, 2020

What Airports Need to Know About Potential PFAS Liabilities

Learn more about the latest in PFAS regulations and how Jacobs can help in this article.

Spraying aqueous film-forming foam (containing PFAS) in training at an airport

Over the past several years, there has been a surge in regulatory interest to address the public health and environmental risks from releases of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), including use of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) for firefighting or training. This call to action has resulted in rapid development of regulations and guidance, at both the federal and state level, which have started to impact the airport community.

PFAS contamination in soil and groundwater adds a new dimension of risk management to airport operations that affects both current capital projects underway, which often involve extensive soil management, as well as ongoing maintenance requirements for storage, training and equipment cleaning associated with AFFF. Legacy impacts to on-site soils and groundwater may also have impacts to off-site receptors such as nearby water supply and/or surface water habitat, which also need to be considered in managing risks within the airport environment.

The current level of uncertainty, particularly within the regulatory environment at the state level, and current policy considerations being reviewed by Congress, coupled with a concerned public clamoring for remediation solutions well ahead of the science, poses a unique challenge within the realm of environmental management. Further complications exist for airport operations, as the main source of PFAS release within their operational footprint derives from the continued use of AFFF, as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as releases from actions by tenants on leased airport properties (such as hangars).

New regulations could create challenges for facilities that use (or have used) AFFF and could result in liability and expense for aviation facilities that have historically released PFAS chemicals into the environment through normal airport operations such as foam testing, training, or emergency response activities. Health and environmental research continue to evolve and shape the PFAS landscape, posing risks beyond regulatory compliance (such as legal and public relations), which require an ability to anticipate and identify these risks and deploy best management practices in order to maintain operations.

What are the Current Regulations for PFAS?

PFAS are synthetic fluorinated organic chemicals with unique properties including both water and oil repellency and surfactant properties which make them commercially valuable and found in a wide variety of products and industrial processes. PFAS are incorporated as surfactants into AFFF which is used to extinguish class B flammable liquid fires at a variety of facilities, including commercial airports. Although there are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS, the two that are commonly encountered in the environment and are the most studied are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). As early as the 1990s, studies reported the widespread detection of these two compounds in human blood serum.

Regulation of PFAS started in the early 2000s. PFOA and PFOS were removed from the market by 2002 through rulemaking under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), as well as through a voluntary stewardship program involving the eight largest PFOA/PFOS manufacturers in the U.S. TSCA regulatory activities have also changed the composition of PFAS in AFFF over time. Internationally, PFOS was listed in 2009 under the Stockholm Convention as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) and PFOA was listed as a POP in 2016. Other PFAS are closely regulated in the European Union under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation. Regulatory activity in the U.S. has focused on PFAS in drinking water.

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a provisional drinking water health advisory (DWHA) of 70 ppt (parts per trillion) at individual or combined concentrations of PFOS and PFOA. Taking steps to address PFAS concerns with standards or requirements that go beyond the EPA’s health advisory, states have increasingly taken the lead in developing action levels for PFAS contamination, resulting in an explosion of guidance and regulations. As of April 2020, 24 states have developed action levels for PFOS and PFOA in water and/or soil, and several have regulated more compounds than just those two.

In response to growing public and Congressional pressures, the EPA announced on February 20, 2020, a Proposed Decision to Regulate PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water – a step toward developing maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for those two compounds. The decision was made under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which directs the EPA to establish regulations for new contaminants. The process of developing MCLs may still take many years.

On the soils side of the equation, non-enforceable regulatory guideline values or “screening levels” have been developed by the EPA for three PFAS (PFOS, PFOA, and PFBS). However, some states have screening levels for many more. PFAS leach readily from soil, so the screening levels for protecting groundwater are more stringent than levels for direct contact with soil by humans. The management of contaminated soils associated with construction activities relies on screening levels to help identify treatment levels, analytical detection limits, reuse criteria, and acceptance criteria for disposal.

With regard to airport operations and soil management, an emerging regulatory issue which may be most concerning is that the EPA is considering designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive, Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) or Superfund, which would give the EPA broad authority to require potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to implement and/or pay for cleanup and response actions performed by them or others. This could implicate airports as PRPs for both legacy disposal practices at off-site landfills and off-site concerns related to groundwater impacted by legacy airport operations. The issue, as of this writing, is still being debated in Congress. However, several states have made the decision to regulate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances, which affects handling, treatment and disposal options.

Though many of them are water-soluble and mobile in the environment, many PFAS do not degrade easily under typical environmental conditions. Given the unique properties of PFAS, effective treatment of environmental media is far more challenging and costly than for more traditional contaminants such as petroleum hydrocarbons and chlorinated solvents.

How do Typical Airport Activities Result in PFAS Releases?

The primary environmental releases of PFAS at airports has historically been from use of AFFF in emergency response, activation of fire suppression systems in hangars, firefighter training exercises, and leaks from storage tanks and/or supply lines. Potentially impacted areas are likely to include firefighting training and equipment maintenance areas, disposal areas, treatment lagoons, or drainage and wastewater systems used to channel or contain fire-extinguishing materials after use. Bulk fuel storage areas at airports also often have fire suppression systems charged with AFFF, and accidental fuel releases are often sprayed with foam to prevent ignition.

The PFAS specific compounds in soil or water will depend on the formulations of the AFFF used by an airport. Over time, the PFAS composition in AFFF formulations has changed in response to regulatory requirements. Foams manufactured before 2002 most likely contained PFOA and/or PFOS; foams manufactured between 2002 and 2016 contained long-chained fluorotelomers (referred to as precursors) that could degrade in the environment to PFOA or PFOS; since 2016, foams have been formulated with short-chained fluorotelomers which degrade more readily in the environment (though not quickly enough to prevent potential human health risk issues) and do not transform into PFOA or PFOS, but do contain other PFAS. Even in these later foams (referred to as C6 foams) there are often trace amounts of PFOS or PFOA at sufficient levels to result in environmental impacts.

While current investigation standard operating procedures detect the PFAS that predominate in legacy and modern AFFF, there are action levels in soil or water for only a subset of these substances. This becomes a complicating factor in PFAS risk management as future standards for these other substances could be developed that result in additional soil and/or groundwater clean-up for areas previously believed to be “clean,” and possibly additional potential liability from past disposal practices.

Other potential sources of PFAS at airports include construction materials, hydraulic oils, biocides, lubricants, and metal plating operations. In addition, PFAS-containing consumer products such as carpets, furniture fabric coatings and paper packaging materials that result from airport remodels or daily waste collection, as well as soils removed from airport property, may have ended up in off-site landfills as part of normal airport disposal practices. Municipal landfill operators are becoming aware of the liabilities associated with acceptance of PFAS-containing wastes as studies at municipal landfills have revealed the presence of PFAS in leachate and underlying groundwater.

How Might Future PFAS Regulations Affect Airport Operations?

In the midst of this changing regulatory climate, it is unclear to what degree future regulations will affect facilities that utilize PFAS-containing AFFF or own property impacted by PFAS from past operations. Airports are challenged to understand what unacceptable risks may be present and what to do about these risks, if they exist. Airports that store and/or use AFFF might face operational considerations related to PFAS, primarily in regard to firefighting activities – specifically, how airports procure, store, handle, apply, remove and dispose of AFFF.

It is important for airports to understand that historically, and possibly currently, AFFF use likely resulted in releases of PFAS to the environment. Not only could airport activities cause PFAS contamination of soil and groundwater within the facility boundary, it’s possible PFAS contamination has migrated to off-site areas and could affect other property owners or drinking water sources, which is beginning to draw attention from concerned citizens and regulators. In March 2019, the California Water Board issued orders to 27 airports believed to have used PFAS-containing AFFF to investigate potential PFAS contamination. Investigative orders were also issued to operators of drinking water wells within a two-mile radius of one of the airports.

Future regulations could mandate soil and groundwater remediation. Should parts of a facility or soil and groundwater at nearby properties be impacted, capital projects could be delayed until adequate restoration is achieved. This could be a significant setback for facilities, because management of PFAS-impacted media can cost substantial time and money. The cost of completing capital projects could also be affected if future regulations require special handling for PFAS-impacted materials, such as contaminated soil or groundwater or demolished building or equipment/materials that may contain PFAS. For example, in January 2020, the state of New York issued guidance for sampling PFAS in soil and water which also requires sampling for PFAS in soil imported for soil caps, soil cover, or as backfill. This could impact airport construction activities in New York and could set a precedence for other states.

What Actions Should Airports Take to Mitigate Risks?

As the scientific and regulatory communities’ understanding of PFAS continues to evolve, it will be important for airports to watch for changing regulations in their states and at the national level. These regulations will ultimately determine how substances containing PFAS, such as AFFF, are managed in the future. In addition, there is extensive ongoing research into the health and environmental effects of PFAS, which creates uncertainty in risk management.

As airports face and evolving PFAS regulatory environment, we encourage full engagement of your environmental, operations, legal and public relations teams to develop an approach for addressing PFAS issues that may arise. Such engagement is critical as each airport has different needs and no “one size fits all” solution is appropriate, especially considering the uncertain legal issues associated with the current state of the regulations. As part of this approach, airports should examine potential PFAS liabilities, especially those associated with current and historical AFFF operations, including the development of a Conceptual Site Model, which traces potential release, migration and receptor pathways. Another critical action is the development of risk management plans or incorporation of PFAS impacts into existing risk management plans, that include key airport stakeholders. This is important for managing the multiple issues surrounding PFAS, including understanding the full lifecycle of fire-fighting foams and other materials from procurement, application, storage and disposal.

Developing a clear understanding of potential impacts of new fire-fighting foam formulations and implementing best management practices to prevent their release into the environment, will go a long way in helping to avoid future liabilities and associated mitigation costs.;

By being proactive in their planning, airports can be better prepared to address the potential challenges that can arise from PFAS contaminated soils generated from capital and maintenance projects, fire training, waste handling and potential off-site impacts that may currently be unknown. The airport PFAS management team will need to consider whether communication of such a plan to the pertinent regulatory agencies and general public can help the airport better manage their risks (and potential liabilities) by getting ahead of PFAS inquiries, instead of reacting to agency letters and/or unanticipated media scrutiny.

How Can Jacobs Help?

Jacobs is ranked No. 2 in Airports by Engineering News-Record. We help our aviation partners overcome their PFAS challenges by being honest brokers, bridging the gaps between technical and regulatory uncertainty, and supporting the airport’s main mission by focusing on practical solutions that control costs, address public concerns and minimize operational impacts.

Our service offerings include:

  • Environmental Permitting & Planning – environmental impact statements (EISs), environmental assessments (EAs), air quality modeling, air dispersion modeling and permitting, stormwater compliance (industrial permit requirements), noise analysis and modeling, FAR Part 150 noise compatibility and land use studies, FAR Part 150 noise exposure analysis, wetlands delineation, wildlife certifications and human health risk assessments.
  • Environmental Stewardship and Resiliency – environmental regulatory compliance, sustainability and green buildings, carbon management, climate adaptability and resiliency.
  • Waste Management and Planning – solid waste master plans, permitting and the circular economy.
  • EAs & Remediation – environmental site assessments, multimedia site characterization and remediation and risk management.
  • Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Management Strategies – full-service multimedia evaluations, soil and groundwater management, risk management, community outreach and construction planning.

Want to Learn More?


Bob Cipolletti

Aviation Americas Environmental Community of Practice Leader

+1 617.905.4259

Bill DiGuiseppi

PFAS Subject Matter Expert