Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Answers sought: Why did Albany International Airport (KALB) hangar fill with foam?

COLONIE — Employees wielded mops and buckets as engineers inspected wiring and valves on Wednesday morning, a day after a Commutair maintenance hangar suddenly filled with fire-suppressing foam.

Officials at Albany International Airport said it could have been worse. No one was injured, there were no aircraft in the hangar, the foam dispensers weren't triggered by a fire, and the foam was vacuumed up or eventually dissipated.

But determining just what caused the foam to flow, filling the hangar to its 30-foot ceiling in a matter of minutes, wasn't immediately clear.

Spare parts that are boxed and wrapped in plastic will be unwrapped, inspected and recertified for use, said John O'Donnell, an engineer who is CEO of the Albany County Airport Authority.

Possible causes include a short circuit, a lightning strike and a water main break nearby, said airport spokesman Doug Myers.

O'Donnell said the foam used at the airport contains small amounts of ethylene but is essentially soap suds, which is fortunate. While Albany's foam is free of PFOA, O'Donnell said, the hazardous chemical  has been used in foam at other airports where it found its way into drinking water.

The site where the mishap occurred is a $4.2 million, 17,000-square-foot hangar and office building completed two years ago. Commutair's smaller, adjacent hangar wasn't affected.

While some expensive parts may have come in contact with the foam, O'Donnell said initial estimates that the damage could total in the millions of dollars are likely too high.

Joel Raymond, the company's CEO, said it was unclear how much damage the foam caused or what set the system off.

"We still need to assess the situation," he said. "It's not likely to do much damage, other than make a big mess."

This is the main maintenance facility for Commutair, which flies under contract to United Express and is in the midst of acquiring as many as 100 Embraer 145 regional jets and phasing out its older turboprop aircraft. The phaseout is expected to be completed by Nov. 8.

Commutair is also boosting the number of mechanics and other staff at the Albany airport by 100 or more.

The foam dispensers erupted around 3 p.m. as mechanics were preparing to move an aircraft into the hangar. As the dispensers started to flow, they automatically closed the oversized hangar doors.

As other doors to the hangar were opened, the foam poured out, giving the surrounding landscape a wintry look on a night when the temperature was near 70 degrees. Crews remained on the scene until 4 a.m.

The suds climbed to the rafters as the airport's firefighting crews raced in to turn off the foam. The work was aided by the airport's vacuum truck, which normally removes glycol from the tarmac in winter after planes have been de-iced. The state Department of Environmental Conservation observed the cleanup and said the foam caused no environmental damage.

O'Donnell said it may be some time before a tally of damages is available.

"They haven't really gotten ... to wipe down, clean and recertify the parts," he said. "So that's unknown."

But, he added, "now everyone's trained on how to quickly turn (the foam dispensers) off."

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COLONIE - A fire suppression system at Commutair malfunctioned Tuesday afternoon, spewing tons of foam throughout the hangar area of the Albany International Airport, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said.

Mountains of foam  blanketed the area around 4 p.m., likely causing millions of dollars in damage, the sheriff said.

Photos of the scene made it look like that part of the airport was hit with a severe snow storm.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation was en route to the airport around 7 p.m., Apple said.

While the spill is not considered toxic, the foam is an eye irritant, he said.

"It's a big, big mess," Apple said.

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