Justin Chromack grew up in his grandmother’s house in Findlay. He spent three decades there, fishing in a nearby stream and drinking water from a private well on the property.
The house is a stone’s throw from a private road at Pittsburgh International Airport. Near the end of that road, there’s a large pit where airport firefighters spent decades putting out practice fires on airplanes. The firefighters used a special foam called AFFF that helps smother dangerous fires with jet fuel.
It turns out that the foam they used was toxic.
The airport has known about the potential contamination on its property for years but hasn’t tested for it or taken steps to protect nearby residents. There are no laws requiring it to take action. Scientists say the airport’s $1.4 billion construction project could make the contamination problem worse.
According to a PublicSource report in 2019, firefighters dumped thousands of gallons of AFFF into the ground. One chemical in the foam, called PFOS, is part of a class of chemicals known as “forever chemicals,” which don’t degrade over time. So once they’re in the soil, they can stay there indefinitely, allowing additional contamination to leech into nearby water sources every time it rains.
A small creek starts near where these chemicals were being dumped. And if you follow that creek for about 1.5 miles, it runs right across the street from Chromack’s childhood home.
PFAS chemicals can have a variety of health impacts, including increased risks of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and kidney and testicular cancers. The chemical in the AFFF foam, called PFOS, is so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency is now advising people that even amounts too small to measure can have harmful effects when it’s in the water people drink every day.
Chromack no longer lives with his grandma but often brings his young children to the house when his grandmother isn’t feeling well. She has been dealing with the after-effects of heart attacks, diabetes and chronic pain in her hip. Her husband passed away from a brain tumor decades ago. Chromack and his children haven’t been drinking the water at the house for a few years, he said, so they spend a lot of money on bottled water.
Mark Kinkade, a spokesperson for the U.S. Airforce, said in an email that it has conducted tests of water wells within a mile downgradient of its base but didn’t find any PFAS contamination. Kinkade said the test results have been sent to the DEP and are expected to be released to the public later this week.
But Chromack said no one from the airport or the Air Force has come by to ask about the drinking water at his grandmother’s house. The home is on the opposite side of the airport as the Air Force base and so falls outside the area tested by the Air Force. And the airport authority has yet to try to identify where its own contamination sites might be.
Chromack thinks that, if the drinking water is contaminated, someone should help them.
“Water’s a lot of money, and you use it for everything. And [my grandma] constantly has kids down here,” he said. “I have five children alone, and I have three other brothers and sisters that all have children too.”
Why no action?
At another airport in Pennsylvania, near Penn State University’s main campus, the Department of Environmental Protection tested 50 homes and has been providing bottled water for free to nine of the homes where the drinking water showed high levels of contamination. But the DEP hasn’t done similar testing in Pittsburgh.
Instead, a spokesperson for the DEP said the only effort in Pittsburgh has been led by the U.S. Air Force, which has a base at the airport. And four years after acknowledging contamination there, the Air Force now says it’s finally about to release the results of tests just outside the base itself.
But those tests will not cover the Chromacks, who are not close to the military base but are near a potential contamination site at Pittsburgh International Airport. The airport has not shared any test results for PFAS contamination on its property, according to the DEP.
Bob Kerlik, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, wrote in an email that the airport “complies with all FAA requirements regarding PFAS. We continue to work with our regulatory partners as further guidance becomes available from them.”
Federal law once required airports like Pittsburgh’s to use firefighting foam with AFFF for decades. But there are no requirements in place for those same airports to test for the contamination this created or clean it up. A few airports are testing and helping nearby residents voluntarily.
That means neither the DEP nor the airport authority knows if the soil at the airport is contaminated. And this can be especially dangerous during periods of construction, according to scientists who study PFAS. Pittsburgh International Airport began construction on a $1.4 billion terminal renovation last year. A press release announcing the airport’s construction project says it is being built “with a focus on public health.”The upgrades include providing cleaner indoor air for passengers inside, but the plans make no mention of the potential chemical contamination impacting its neighbors.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said it is not aware of any soil samples for PFAS in the area where the airport is constructing its new terminal and that such sampling is not currently required by state law.
When PFAS-contaminated soil is disturbed during construction, the chemicals are more likely to contaminate nearby surface waters during storm events, according to Christopher Higgins, an engineer at the Colorado School of Mines.
What the law requires
The airport has known about potential contamination for years but has not publicly shared any steps to identify it or help nearby residents whose health may be in jeopardy. In 2019, Christina Cassotis, the chief executive officer for the authority, said the authority was only doing what is required by law.
When Patrick McDonell, then the secretary of the DEP, visited the airport in August of 2019, PFAS contamination came up. “PFAS was briefly discussed with the gist of the conversation recapping that the authority has not conducted any sampling on or off-site and did not indicate any intention to do so,” according to an emailed statement by the DEP.
The two military bases on airport property are investigating PFAS contamination. The Air Force’s Air Reserve Station and the U.S. Army reserve station at the airport released an 80-page report in 2018 detailing where the PFAS contamination is located on their bases and how severe it is. Since then the Air Force has begun to do additional testing a quarter-mile beyond its own property.
But this additional testing doesn’t cover people like the Chromacks, who are close to the airport’s firefighting site but not close to the military bases.
In the meantime, Chromack and his children continue to buy bottled water, even for basic cooking.
His grandma, Sarah, is most worried that any PFAS contamination discovered during testing would force her to shut off her well and then she would have to pay for municipal drinking water.
“I’ve been drinking it for 50 some years, and it hasn’t bothered me,” she said.