Sunday, March 14, 2021

Commission: Traverse City Must Pay For Foam Mishaps at Cherry Capital Airport (KTVC)

TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan — Cleaning up accidental releases of toxic firefighting foam at Cherry Capital Airport will be at Traverse City’s expense after all.

City attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht concluded as much after reviewing a just-renewed contract for Traverse City Fire Department to serve the airport, city Manager Marty Colburn wrote in a memo. And airport Director Kevin Klein turned down his request that the airport fund half the cleanup cost.

That leaves Traverse City holding the bag for three cleanups of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance-containing foam totaling around $56,000, with the bill for the two most recent incidents causing city commissioners to weigh renegotiating the contract.

One route is to give 90 days’ notice to withdraw from it, a move commissioner Tim Werner suggested at a previous meeting. He could ask for a vote on that at Monday’s meeting, or ask to have it placed on a future agenda.

“To me, the contract is not currently sufficient, so let’s give 90 days’ notice and if the airport’s interested in renegotiating, we’ll renegotiate,” he said.

All three releases happened during training, and Werner said the entire point of the exercises was to learn from human error. That training is part of what the city provides the airport through the contract, and city firefighters wouldn’t be involved if the department wasn’t serving the airport, he argued.

“It’s not like, oh well we’ve got a couple other airports on the other side of town and this helps us learn so we can serve them,” he said.

Commissioner Christie Minervini agreed. She argued the contract leaves the city too exposed to cleanup costs, and believes that to be a major oversight in the current language.

“I think the airport needs to work with us,” she said. “I think it makes perfect sense that we should have that contract but ... I just don’t see what’s in it for the city other than the additional risk and the cost to the taxpayers.”

Resolving the issue could be fairly straightforward, Minervini said — the city already has insurance for PFAS cleanups but there’s a $25,000-per-incident deductible. City and airport negotiators could hammer out a provision figuring out how to pay for any cleanups under that amount.

Commissioner Roger Putman said he wants to renegotiate the contract as well, and hopes it can be done amicably.

A message left for Klein Friday wasn’t returned. He previously said the airport considered the cleanup costs to be the city’s responsibility and believed the airport and city could resolve any disputes.

Firefighters on March 10, 2020, inadvertently spilled 50 gallons of aqueous fire fighting foam concentrate onto an airport service ramp, as previously reported. Then on November 28 a city firefighter inadvertently hit the foam system button in an airport crash rescue truck while testing its systems, causing foam to flow onto the ground. A firefighter spotted foam in the water from the same truck when testing its water system a week later.

Contractors cleaned up after all three to keep the PFAS-laden foam from seeping into groundwater, as previously reported.

The PFAS in the foam are part of a class of “forever” chemicals also used to make nonstick cookware and to waterproof clothing. The Federal Aviation Administration in October will drop its requirement that airport fire departments use the chemicals in foam.

Meanwhile, there’s no approved alternative, and city Fire Chief Jim Tuller previously told commissioners that tests on the most promising candidate showed it’ll take several times more foam concentrate and water to get the same results.

The U.S. Navy used PFAS-laced foam during Putman’s military career, he said. He recalled how people who routinely trained with it would be drenched with the stuff when they were finished.

“And believe me, we didn’t have hazmat suits,” he said, adding he is concerned about city firefighters working with the chemicals.

Testing has revealed PFAS in the groundwater near former factories and military bases. Eighteen homes in East Bay Township north of the airport and U.S. Coast Guard air base are eligible for free connections to a public water system after PFAS was detected in their wells, and investigations are underway to find a possible source.

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